Canadian Woodworking

Stairway to Headache

Author: James Jackson
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: October November 2021
Stairway to Headache
Stairway to Headache

Sometimes the best home renovation is the one you never do.


Every visitor to our little wartime home in Waterloo Region in Ontario always has the same reaction when they go down the basement stairs for the first time. They grip the railing for dear life and act as if the floor is giving out below them.

It’s a natural first instinct given how unnaturally steep the stairs are, and how disorienting they can be for first-timers.

Built in the early 1950s, our one-and-a-half storey home is about 950 square feet, and it’s cozy and cute, but those stairs. Wow. I walked down sideways just to make myself feel a little safer during the house tour with my realtor nine years ago when we bought the place.

The stair treads are plenty deep – about 9-1/2″ – so there’s actu­ally lots of room for your feet to maneuver. They’re not dangerous. The steep angle just catches you off guard the first time you use them. And the second time. And the third time. Luckily, there’s a sturdy handrail to guide you down.

Plus, going up and down is great exercise for your calf muscles.

Nearly a decade later, I can take them two at a time while carry­ing a basket of clean laundry in one hand and talking to someone on my cell phone with the other.

But these stairs have also caused us some major headaches over the past few months when it came to a planned basement renovation. We had a few contractors come by last fall to discuss finishing the basement to make a little more living space for our two young girls, but they all pointed to the stairs as a major sticking point.

The steep incline was necessary back in the day to physically fit the stairs into the footprint of the small house, and there’s only about two feet of clearance at the bottom landing.

There just isn’t enough clearance at the bottom for insulation and drywall, meaning the stairs would need to be physically pushed back at the top to reduce the incline. That would involve cutting a few feet out of the floor and extending the stairs out into the living room.

Not ideal.

Or the contractor would need to add a second landing and cut through some of the overhead joists to change the actual angle of the stairs and pivot the bottom landing out into more open space.

Also not ideal.

For a simple basement renovation, this all sounded like way too much work. Plus, we don’t have the budget (or the stomach) for that type of demolition and reconstruction of our old home. The neighbours on either side of us live in virtually the same house and they both have finished basements, though theirs were done a few decades ago when building codes may have been a little less restrictive.

Another option we were offered was to just leave the stair portion unfinished and complete the rest of the basement, but that wasn’t a great fit either since we didn’t want the basement to have a choppy feel to it.

In the end our solution to the problem is to just continue living with it the way it is. We wanted the additional living space, espe­cially with two small girls who are growing up very quickly, but it wasn’t worth the risk, the added cost, or the unknowns of tearing into floor joists and extending stairways into other areas of the home.

You hear horror stories about renovation projects that quickly spi­ral out of control when the homeowner demands too much of the contractor, or doesn’t understand the limitations of the space. Maybe the best home reno we ever did was the one that never even got started.

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