Flood Savvy

Staircase Design on Elevated House: Architectural Pitfalls


The biggest snafu we’ve encountered with our project to date is with the design of the new front staircase. The number of steps required is dictated by building codes based on the height of the house, but the design aspect allows for some creativity. This process is usually a collaboration between the homeowner and their architect. But what happens when your architect turns out to be a shirker, not a worker?

Our seasoned architect is established in our community and has drafted several other elevation projects in our neighborhood. We assumed his experience would translate into a smooth endeavor. It’s turned out to be about as smooth as a cross country flight subjected to frequent bouts of bone jarring turbulence.


The first sign of trouble came with the second set of drawings. The first set had a few errors: windows in the wrong place, insufficient details and a front stair design we more or less disliked. Not only did the stairs he suggested take up the majority of our front yard, but they also required making five turns before reaching the front door. Five! Good luck moving any furniture through that maze.

Note how much real estate these stair consume. Fine on a wider property, like this one.
NOT our design – you would need to add one MORE turn. Note how much real estate these stairs consume. Fine on a wider property, like this one.

Subsequent sets of drawings were just as poor. Initially, we kindly declined his version of the staircase and suggested straight steps would be more fitting to our house. He attempted to sway us, suggesting that a gradual rise would be more palatable to people than a straight run. Not if they have to get dizzy just getting to the front door. And whose paying for these stairs anyway? Oh, yeah, not you!

As per protocol, the drawings were first shown to the zoning board who granted us the required variances. This board even thanked us for going to all the trouble to lift our house out of the floodplain, decreasing our burden on the community – all at our expense. Things had not completely deteriorated just yet.


The next hurtle to our staircase issue was an approval from the architectural review board (ARB). This seven member volunteer panel who evaluate exterior design elements convene just twice a month, with strict submission guidelines and deadlines. After weeks of empty promises and unexplained delays, our architect showed us the “updated” plans he was going to present to (ARB).

There were a few minor changes, but the U-shape style steps remained on the plans despite our strong opposition. We had even shown him photographs of the exact style we desired – straight steps. But due to his unending procrastination there was no time to change them. Plus, he had led us to believe we could easily change course in the future.

Straight style with a landing in the middle.
Straight style with a landing in the middle.
Straight style
Elevated house with straight style stairs

So the ARB saw the swirl of U-shaped stairs first. Along with other details that they evaluated, such as window placement and flood vent locations, this board passed our plans. Good news, right? Sort of … Before we can build the stairs we want, the ARB has to see and approve them. Which meant another meeting, which meant delays.

The next meeting, primarily for just evaluating the front stairs, the ARB denied our new proposal. The board preferred the gigantic U-shape style. Our architect was unwilling or unable to sway this decision on our behalf.

As our construction is already underway, we are running out of time. Our choices are limited. Attempt to overturn the decision by presenting our plans to the zoning board (protocol) or taking our chances and presenting to the ARB again with a different version of stairs.



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