Spiral staircases are always surrounded by a real sense of 'what will I find?' In stories and films, they are often associated with airs of romance and mysterious goings on. A fair dame winds her way down an antique cast iron spiral staircase into the arms of her lover. Or, a young boy, eager for adventure, discovers in his grandfather's abode a twisting wooden spiral, up into a forbidden room holding forbidden treasure. This is the joy of spiral staircases; in our imaginations, they take us to those places that we would never dare tread or ever dare hope for in reality.
The basic design of a spiral staircase is a continuous curve around a central pole, known in the trade as the newal post. The hand rail is typically only situated on the outer side, but two hand rails are equally feasible. In fact, modern spiral staircases lend themselves to all sorts of design options, and this versatility makes a spiral staircase a very plausible option for many households. The vertical aspect of the stair is made up of a traditional balustrade, or a series of vertical posts called risers. It is these risers that secure the hand rail to the treads or steps. When it comes to choosing your materials for your spiral staircase, again, there are many options, including wood, metal, stone, glass, or a combination of finishes.
Historically, spiral staircases date back to ancient times, with the earliest surviving example found in Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily, which was constructed around 480 BC. Either side of the temple's cellar are two spiral staircases constructed from stone. Much of the architectural design remains unchanged; as previously mentioned, spiral staircases are still largely formed using a central or newal post, with the treads or steps attached to this centre support. The most famous spiral staircase from the ancient world is within Trajan's column. This magnificent 42m high marble triumph column stands in Rome, commemorating the Emperor Trajan's victory in war with the region of Dacia. A 185 step spiral staircase resides in the columns hollow interior, leading to a platform offering stunning views of the area. Prior to the column's construction, spirals were rarely seen in Roman architecture, but they rapidly spread throughout the empire and became the staircase of choice, particularly for the rich and powerful.
Perhaps the most well known functional aspect of the spiral staircase design was the advantages that it gave to defending armies. In many castles of the medieval period, spiral staircases can be found amongst the archaeological remains, and they were most commonly used to reach to the tops of towers. The narrow space and clock wise cork screw design were particularly hard to navigate, and severely hindered melee combat for any right handed swordsman. For any defending monarch, spiral staircases were an excellent defence mechanism.
World wide, there are some fantastical, dizzying, and architectural wonders in the form of spiral staircases. One of the most photographed in the world is the spiral staircase in the Vatican Museum. It is the work of Italian engineer and architect Giuseppe Momo, who was commissioned by Pope Pius XI to design and build the magnificent staircase in 1932. The staircase is made of two wrought iron stairways that go up and down in a double helix shape. This very special and specific formation adds to the iconic value of this staircase, for the double helix became the foundation of science and came to represent life itself in the form of DNA.
Another spiral staircase which is a real cause for intrigue is that present in the Loretto Chapel in Mexico. For starters, no one knows who built it, but the miracle lies in that no one really knows how it stays intact as a functional staircase, because there is no central support. It does however ascend 20 feet into the air, with 2 full spirals within the staircase, and does all this with no attachment to any of the walls and no nails involved in the construction. Another part of the mystery, is the wood used to build the staircase; it cannot be found anywhere in the region, and there are no records of any timber movements or purchases of timber at the time the staircase was built. Part of the legend surrounding the staircase even claims that no one saw anyone complete any building work, but construction seemed to continue as if done by magic.
The result is an impressive piece of 19th century carpentry, and it has been settled that the lack of centre support is not a problem with a centre spiral as narrow as that exhibited by the staircase at Loretto Chapel. Such evidence does not take away from the fascination of this architectural marvel; it remains a miracle for the Sisters at Loretto and the many pilgrims who come to visit the church. It is clear that not all of the mystery has been solved, but time may eventually tell the full story of Loretto's miracle spiral staircase.
For the home, a spiral staircase adds both beauty and functionality. These staircases come in many different finishes, including wood, metal, and glass, or a combination of these materials. Popular examples are stainless steel and cast iron staircases, as both offer a chic modern finish but also bring a touch of nostalgia to a room. Beyond the artistic merit, there are many design possibilities and so spiral staircases can be highly personalised to blend fully into the space you are trying to create. The curves of a spiral are particularly useful in smaller properties such as an apartment or flat, as they are easily adjustable to any height and take up very little space making this an ideal option for those on a budget and with a limited area to fit furniture in. Spiral staircases can be very steep and building regulations can limit their use, but guidelines for construction are well documented with specific widths and diameters between hand rails and steps established, according to the height of the staircase, ensuring that safety comes first and that this is a legitimate option for all groups of society including families with small children. With the huge array of design options available, including the number and angle of turns, the height, the width of the treads, safety and security are easily achieved. Furthermore, a fall on a spiral staircase will most likely throw you against the balustrade which will check your fall and give you the opportunity to grab onto the hand rail.
Installation can be done at home without the need for a professional. Spiral staircase kits are readily available for the DIY enthusiast, and come with all the hardware required, including treads, landing, balusters and handrails. Prices are highly variable also, with a staircase to suit all budgets. The tools required are fairly routine, such as allen keys, power screw driver, spirit level, hacksaw, drill and drill bits, and a little grease to ease the turning of nuts and bolts.
The generic procedure for installing your new spiral staircase is described below, but this will vary according to the manufactures instructions.
First of all, you measure the height of your staircase from the upper floor to the lower, ensuring that the top step will be flush with the upper floor. Then count out how many risers you will need, which will equal the number of stairs plus the final landing step. Next, the rise height needs to be calculated, by dividing the total floor-to-floor height by the number of risers that you require. This distance will equate to that between the top of one tread and the top of the next tread. Now you can get to work; position the base plate where you want to install your staircase, and insert the centre post. This is the post to which you will add the treads, and acts to strengthen the final newel post. Add the treads one at a time, distributing the weight evenly by alternating parts to the left and right until all the treads have been added. Next install the support for the newel post and fix the landing platform to the upper floor. Line up the steps, and secure by installing the vertical risers. You can then move on to installing the hand rails along the staircase and at the landing on the upper floor. Finally, set the newel post into position over the centre post, and secure.