When designers discuss movement in the garden, we often focus on abstract interpretations of the word.
Ornamental grasses sway in the slightest breeze and add movement to the garden.
A well-placed focal point moves your eyes through the space.
I say these kinds of things to clients all the time, but for this month’s Garden Designers Roundtable, the topic is Getting From Here to There, and I’m going to share a bit of Design 101 by focusing on an important and often misunderstood garden element: the staircase. With a shout-out to all the plant lovers out there, if hardscape elements like pathways and stairs aren’t thoughtfully planned, a garden’s potential simply hasn’t been maximized. Here are a few things I consider when designing an outdoor staircase:
Indoors vs. Outdoors
Movement and circulation have very different functions and goals outside vs. inside. Indoors, the purpose of hallways, stairs and other open areas is to get easily and quickly from point A to point B to point C, as in, from the couch in front of the television to the kitchen for a snack and up the stairs to the bedroom for a nap. Having just described my perfect Sunday afternoon, I can assure you these are all important activities, and I would be very annoyed if naptime was delayed because of unnecessary detours.
The opposite is true in the garden, however, when the actual experience of getting from here to there is as important as the final destination. Faster and more direct isn’t necessarily better. But to get it just right, get ready to do some math.
Did you know that there is a specific formula for designing a staircase? It’s 2R + T = 24” – 27”, where R = rise and T = tread.
For example, if each riser is 6”, and the tread is 12” (a typical indoor combination) then the formula will yield 24”. While this falls within the range and is fine for indoors, in the outdoors, the goal is to move people more slowly through the space – again, it’s about experiencing the garden. Smaller treads with steeper risers have a cramped, utilitarian feel, are not as comfortable to walk on and encourage people to hurry up. They also accommodate less of the walker’s feet, which means paying more attention, looking down at the steps, etc. instead of looking around at the garden.
My favorite range for garden treads is 14” to 16”. This is wide enough to create a gracious effect and encourage a slower pace, but not so wide as to break someone’s normal stride. 18” treads look beautiful, and also create enough width to sit on comfortably, but they are too wide to accommodate a typical stride. I might use a tread this big if there are only one or two steps. Grade permitting, I like a 5 ½” rise and a 15” tread.
Another common mistake is failing to mark the edge, which can create a tripping hazard. We are less likely to look down at our feet when walking outdoors, so it’s important to mark the end of each step. This can be done by adding a bullnose finish (which creates a shadow), or including a border in a different color or material, or even by adding a border of the same material but in a different pattern. This is particularly important if you have only one stair, as they are particularly easy to overlook. Apart from safety, embellishing a staircase this way transforms it into an integral garden feature, rather than just a convenience.
Contrasting material + bullnose
Tile edge is a different pattern, + bullnose
What else? If there is enough space, consider adding landings. This signals the walker to slow down, admire the views and enjoy the journey. A garden should not be about hurrying to the next destination. If you’re willing to delve a bit further into mathematics, calculate the length of the landings and stagger the number of steps between them so that walkers are not always pushing off on the same foot.
staggered stairs with landing
Landing with contrasing border pattern
In the next garden, I used 12" treads because they already existed on the site and I wanted to maximize continuity and not confuse walkers by changing the pattern. My strategy was to balance the narrower treads with broad landings to keep the experience gracious. This dramatically sloped European inspired garden is designed for strolling (there's no grass or play area), so pulling a visitor comfortably through the space was a primary goal.
If all you plant lovers are still with me, I’ll end by saying that I meet a lot of people who think plants are the main thing I spend my time on. The truth is, for a typical design I spend about 25% on communication, meeting and site time,50% of my time on circulation and layout, and only 25% on plants. Why? Because plants are wonderfully forgiving, but hardscape is not.
Just remember, Math + Creativity = A Beautiful Garden
Be sure to check out what other designers have to say on the topic of "getting from here to there" including one from special Garden Designer Roundtable guests, Debra Prinzing and David Perry.