Under the Stairs Storage

Author: Carl Duguay
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: October November 2011
Under the Stairs Storage
Under the Stairs Storage

Home Improvement: Six Creative Ways to Make the Best Use of Space under your Stairs

Here are six ideas to make smart use of the space under your stairs. They range from the relatively easy, which any regular reader of this magazine can likely manage, to more complex projects that might require the assistance of a contractor, plumber or electrician. By-laws vary across the country, so you’ll want to call your municipal Building and Planning Department to find out whether a permit is required for the type of project you plan to undertake. If the area under your stairs is open, it’s unlikely you will require a permit to install removable shelving or rolling cabinets. However, if the area has been framed-in and covered with drywall, or if you intend to install a permanent fixture, then a permit may be required.

Why Bother with a Permit?

Building permits aren’t all about enriching the coffers of local government. While they do serve to ensure that homeowners pay their fair share of the tax burden, they also make certain that any structural, electrical or plumbing modifications to your house are done according to accepted standards. If you later sell your house, most real estate agencies will require you to sign a disclosure form, stating whether you have undertaken any unpermitted work. Don’t be surprised if prospective buyers request that the unpermitted work be inspected by a contractor, at your expense. Real estate agents also caution that unpermitted work, no matter how impressive, doesn’t necessarily add market value to the house – but it does raise indecision and apprehension on the part of buyers. And, if the unpermitted work is the cause of fire or water damage, you may run into problems with your insurance company when processing a claim.

Regardless of the project you undertake, it’s always a good idea to take the time to plan what you intend to do. Sketching out the project, ensuring that your measurements are correct, preparing a materials list and purchasing any necessary hardware before you start will help make the job go easier – and fend off frustration down the road.


Skill Level: easy

Installing basic open shelving under the stairs is an easy and straightforward project that can likely be completed over a weekend – a bit longer perhaps if you need to remove drywall and framing. You can build shelving to hold everything from books to toys to your favourite beverages, and the shelving can be either removable or built in. You can build rectangular shelving or, for a more finished look, bevel the tops of the shelves so they complement the angle of the stairs.

Rolling Cabinets

Skill Level: intermediate

An advantage of movable, or rolling, cabinets is that they enable you to use the full depth of the stairwell. The front panel can be built to suit the room. Be sure to use a high quality set of casters, as each cabinet will be heavy when fully loaded. This option works best if your floor is fairly flat and even as any bumps or slope will cause problems when it comes time to roll out the cabinet.

Closed Cabinets

Skill Level: intermediate

Cabinets are an option for those who don’t like the look of open shelving. They can provide a much more finished look than open shelving, particularly when located on a main floor rather than the basement. Install any combination of doors and drawers that best fits your needs and complements the design of your home. The plywood framework can be installed underneath the stairs, then the doors or drawers can be made to fit. Although it’s not impossible, it is more difficult to install a large bank of drawers than it is to opt for doors.

Built-In Appliances

Skill Level: intermediate

In many homes, laundry appliances are located in the basement. This can pose a problem if you have difficulty walking up and down stairs; or it can simply be a nuisance in large households where laundry is a daily chore. As for the half bathroom option, you’ll need to have some plumbing and electrical work done. If you have never done either type of work before, now is not the time to give it a go – hire a professional.

Office/Study Room

Skill Level: advanced

Increasingly, people are working from home, either on an occasional basis or full-time. Even if no one in your house works from home, it’s nice to have a quiet place to pay bills, check your email or browse the Canadian Woodworking forum. Children and young adults can also benefit from having access to a dedicated study room rather than the kitchen table or too-small bedroom. For either use, you’ll likely want at least one electrical outlet and a wall or ceiling light. An alternative to compact fluorescent lighting for a small space is LED lighting, like the Energy Star-rated AmbientLED (philips.ca). It is more energy-efficient, doesn’t generate much heat, isn’t affected by cycling the power on and off, and lights up instantly. Rather than a conventional door, which requires ample space to swing into or out of a room, consider installing pocket doors – they are ideal for small spaces and are no more difficult to install than a swing door.

Half Bathroom

Skill Level: advanced

Having an extra bathroom, especially for families with children, can be a godsend. You won’t be able to fit a full-size bathroom under the stairs, but it is ideal for a half-bathroom (or powder room), consisting of a sink and toilet. This, of course, means that some plumbing and electrical work will be required. If the bathroom will be located in the basement, consider using moisture and mold-resistant gypsum, such as Humitek (cgcinc.com). You might also want to consider installing a space-saving pedestal sink and toilet. High-efficiency toilets, like the Cadet 3 FloWise (americanstandard.ca) require a space of only 15 ½” x 28 ½”. Of course, the issue with toilets is their somewhat extensive plumbing requirements. An alternative to the conventional toilet is an ‘up-flush’ toilet, like the Sanicompact 48 (saniflow.ca). While more expensive to purchase up-front, they are easier and less costly to install, as they require only a cold water intake and a 1″ diameter discharge pipe. The toilet macerates the waste and paper and flushes it through the discharge pipe to the main drainpipe.

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