By Ted McIntyre

Taking design to the next level

Some people think of stairs simply as a means of getting from one level to the next. But as a central artery in the composition of homes and buildings, there’s an underlying artistic opportunity that’s rarely lost on architects and designers.

Tridel is among the many developers seeking inspiration as much as functionality in their staircases, and Toronto’s II By IV Design has been the builder’s go-to firm in that department.  

“It’s something we get involved in right at the beginning,” says II By IV partner Dan Menchions. “Staircases are those vertical transitions at circulation points within buildings. We’re given programs for each development, and the connectivity between the floors and the levels changes based on each building, neighbourhood and demographic. We’ll often relocate the stair position in order to make it best suit the efficiency and planning of these interiors.”

While their signature staircases can be considered artwork, there can’t be form without function, Menchions reminds. “Our staircases very much become focal features. But they’re not only beautiful architectural and sculptural elements; they also motivate people to move in a more healthy way through their environment. We incorporate elements to encourage people to use them. Lighting is also extremely important.”

Still, there are creative limitations in the form of the Ontario Building Code. “We have codes and regulations to adhere to, from tread width, dimensions and railing height to egress for fire exiting, materiality for maintenance, slippage, etc. For the barrier-free aspect, there are details that have to be added to the treads and risers at both the base and the tops of stairs, including transition strips,” Menchions says. “But we don’t let (regulations) get in the way of artistry. And sometimes it’s OK to have limitations. If it was a free-for-all, I think you’d have more of a struggle trying to create something.” 

Here’s a look at some of Ontario’s more inspiring steps.

Amber Stairs & Railings 

Modern Family -Toronto 

Amber Stairs & Railings was commissioned to create a staircase that was unique, sleek and modern, yet suitable for a family lifestyle.

“The treads protrude from the wall on standoffs, so the wood doesn’t actually touch the wall!” observes company vice-president Elnita Post. “The distinct square stainless steel standoffs are fully adjustable. They were designed in-house and fabricated in a custom shop since they were not commercially available at that time.

“Using Starphire glass ensured that the glass is extremely clear,” Post adds. “The landing, meanwhile, is held up by standoffs on the inside wall and hung on the glass panel on the outside wall. The glass panel is then hung from the header of the wall above. This gives the landing the illusion of hanging in midair.

“The handrail and the treads are all inlaid with a stainless steel band, tying the standoffs and the wood components together for a cohesive look.”

Tridel / II By IV Design 

Bathed In Light -Aquavista

“With Aquavista, we’re dealing with not a very high ceiling, but this is a direct access from the main lobby to bring people into the lower amenity space,” explains II By IV Design partner Dan Menchions. “So instead of bringing people down through an elevator, we pulled the staircase close to the exterior window to bring in natural light.”

Emblematic of the development’s water theme, an abstract artform hangs from the ceiling, representing a school of fish. Working in harmony with nighttime lighting, the reflected school appears to be “swimming down the staircase on the lower level,” Menchions notes. “We also used small lights positioned above some of the treads. At night it’s a completely different and beautiful experience. And the staircase materials include a beautiful whitewashed wood veneer on the interior and exterior balustrade, with a solid wood cap on top. The railing is black metal (complementing the sculpture) and the stairs are solid granite.”

Tridel / II By IV Design (project in progress)

Markham Magic – Royal Bayview

“This image is from the lower lobby, a subterranean level,” explains II By IV Design partner Dan Menchions of their work at Tridel’s Royal Bayview project in Markham. “We looked at the topography of the area. The buildings are quite geometric and structured, so we wanted to bring a lot more organic shape to soften the interiors, hence why this staircase has that soft curve. 

“This is a very welcoming space, a combination of stone, wood and metal,” Menchions notes. “Pot-lighting on the underside complements the ceiling, while the handrails are illuminated by a LED strip within the design itself. So at night this shows off its beautiful shape. It’s the first project in which we’ve used that.”

RND Construction / Ha2 Architecture Design

Art Course. Ottawa “Galleria”

For Galleria in Ottawa (completed last year), “circulation is a prominent feature, where form and function seamlessly co-exist,” observes Ha2 Architecture Design proprietor Houry Avedissian. “The homeowners and visitors alike have the option to choose the quicker access from the basement via an elevator, but given the intrinsic charm and beauty of this staircase, the scenic art-filled journey up its winding trajectory would be any customer’s first choice.” 

The two-part circular staircase, built out of wood and not steel, “is usually found in concert halls or vacation villas,” notes Avedissian. “But here at Hilson Avenue, we had the luxury of designing it and watching this finely crafted gem assembled—every majestic detail—right down to the stunning winding wood ribbon handrail. The circular staircase shows off its pearly curves, matching another of (the home’s) internal sculptural pieces, the shapely fireplace across from it, not to mention a cylindrical powder room podium sink right off the dining room.”

Tridel / II By IV Design

Crowd A’Peel -Ten York

This staircase sits in the amenity area, on the fifth floor, leading to the rooftop terrace of the pie-shaped podium at Toronto’s Ten York. 

“When you come from the interior core of the residential elevator lobby, you see this beautiful sculptural staircase,” notes II By IV Design’s Dan Menchions. “The large polished stainless steel mirror columns were an intentional part of the design to reflect all of the sculptural elements of the staircase and surrounding area—to open it up and make it feel more animated, since they’re reflecting all the activity in the space as well. The staircase sits in the centre of all that. We used a dark walnut on the balustrade and a casted drywall form on the interior lining, so that it looked like the staircase had been peeled open to reveal this beautiful dark interior. It almost has a ship-like quality to it, like you’re crawling up through a crow’s nest to get to the top deck of the ship. 

“We chose a custom carpet runner,” Mentions adds. “Patterns can be very difficult on curved staircases, so we really worked at designing this particular pattern, and left a little wood reveal on the sides so that the carpet just became this wonderful runner up the staircase—an invitation to get the residents up or down the stairs. It’s a timeless design. There was almost a Frank Gehry-like approach when we were designing this.”

Amber Stairs & Railings

Geometry Class – Toronto Reno

Before Shot

Prior to the installation of this striking geometric-like stair design during a home renovation, this space was occupied by a standard carpet-covered stair with the traditional wooden handrail and spindles, ending with the common monkey-tail volute. The clients wanted to update the look, but weren’t sure exactly how to get there.

After shot

Amber Stairs & Railings designed and produced a double waterfall stairway with fully integrated landings that meet all engineering standards. Fully self-supporting, the stair’s inside stringer is slightly separated from the wall, leaving space for soft yellow lighting.

The clear glass is all supported by a hidden channel to continue the sleek linear look the clients desired, while a natural oil finish adds to the overall warmth.

The end result, a deceptively simple yet eye-catching stair with clean, sleek lines, bathed in warm light, earned the 2018 Best Stairway Renovation from the Stairbuilders and Manufacturers Association.

Royal Oak Railing & Stair/ Rajacan Developments

The Embrace -Forest Hill

Simple but elegant at first blush, this Forest Hill design, built by Rajacan Developments Inc. and completed earlier this year, increasingly dazzles from every angle as one ascends and descends its multiple levels. Featuring a design that appears to collect and embrace its visitors, “this is a high-end custom built-on-site stair,” notes Blair Hilder of Royal Oak Railing and Stair. Although the design was conceived by the builder, “we have project managers and modellers on hand for this type of work,” Hilder says. 

“This design features a continuous wellboard on the main and second floor, with recessed panels that are CNC-cut into the stringers, the latter of which are laminated solid American poplar,” Hilder adds. “Bullnose cylinders were installed on top of the starter tread. We used 1¼”-thick solid quarter-cut white oak for the treads and a ½” birch veneer for the risers.”

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A dramatic skylight bathes the finished product during morning and midday hours.