Utilizing Unutilized House Space: Decorating Under The Stairs

As horrible as it seems, the Harry Potter books had a pretty good idea when they had him use the space under the stairs. Although I wouldn’t necessarily want to “live” under the stairs, using that sometimes useless space to create a home office or organized storage area will ease pressure from other overly used spaces in your home.

The area under the stairs is frequently ignored and really only used to shove things you may not want to see on a daily basis, like shoes, bookbags, workbags, and sports equipment. When you acknowledge the limitless possibilities, however, you can change it in a New York minute, well or a little longer. With a little research and elbow grease, you could turn it into an effective storage area, designed around your particular needs; or you could open it up so it makes your hallways wider or your adjoining rooms larger, thus increasing available square footage and giving your home a more open-plan feel.

Depending upon the pitch or slant of the stairwell, it might be tall enough for you to stand up. If you are lucky enough to have this amount of height, there are so many things that could be done here. If you can get water to the walls of the stairs and you have drain lines close by, you might be able to set up a bathroom with a shower or toilet in this area. You could even turn it into a small utility room with a stackable washer/dryer or small apartment washer/dryer. I once stayed in a bed and breakfast and the entire bathroom was set up in a small closet that was under the stairs to the next floor. It was cozy comfy and charming beyond words.

No matter what you decide to do, make sure you are decorating this new area so it flows with the rest of the room surrounding it. Paint the walls the same color, use the same kind of trim and colors, continue the same decorative details throughout the new space so it flows well. If you can, use the same floor covering. If you are unable to get the same thing or continue it try to find something similar that will allow you to carry on the same style, color, material and tones. If you do all of this, your new space will look like it was planned this way and always a part of your home, not just an add on at a later time.

Gutting The Walls

The first thing you are going to need to do is find out how your stairs are constructed, this is pretty easy. You really just need to take a look inside and see what is covering what and how it all fits together. Most of the time they are enclosed by drywall or wood paneling. Start here by determining this and simply get rid of the drywall or wood paneling.

The most basic kind of staircase is a straight staircase, without any landings or turns and is supported at the top by a floor joist from the second floor, it typically looks like it is being supported or resting on a wall.  This is the easiest type of stairwell to open up and use because the 2×4’s or 2×6’s under the stair raisers and treads serve only to support the decorative walls.

A straight staircase who’s walls are connected to two rooms or are supporting the ceiling above are the most difficult to open up and use. The walls in these rooms are most likely going to be load bearing and supporting the ceiling above and possibly the entire house. In this situation, you will need the advice of a professional contractor and probably building permits before you are able to get rid of the walls and open your space. Watch this video for a quick tidbit to help you determine if your walls are load bearing in your stairwell.

stairwell-newel-postWith staircases that have turns like a quarter-turn, half-turn, and staircases that have landings, the top of the stairs and the landings are supported by a newel post. This will often times extend up into the stairwell that you can see in a railing. When you look inside the walls you will see the framing that supports the staircase will appear much larger and thicker. It also will line up with the newel post that is finished on your railing.

You should not ever consider removing the newel post that supports your staircase. You will need a professional contractor and most likely an architect to figure out how to distribute the weight and support the walls and any floors above the stairwell. Without this, your house will go boom! You can remove the covering of the drywall but you should not move that post because it is the thing saving your from collapse. Next we are going to figure out how to you want to design the space.

How To Design The Under Utilized Space

Opening up the area under hall stairs adds a feeling of spaciousness to the entrance area and gives you more room to put the hall to practical use. The same goes for opening stairs up into a room – you create a visually interesting niche, framed by the staircase, which you can use in any of the following ways:

A Library

If you have a fairly large space and lots of books and magazines, how about setting up a mini-library? Line the walls under the stairs with shelves – adjustable ones are a good idea, allowing you to vary and alter the spacing to store all sizes of books and magazines. Painting the shelves to match the baseboard and other moldings gives the space an integrated feel.

Use recessed spotlights or angled floor lamps to illuminate the books as well as to provide reading light. For a really high-tech touch, fix up strip lighting on the shelves themselves to highlight the books.

If space permits, add a comfortable chair, looking out into the room or hall. The stairs themselves often protect the space underneath from drafts, making it a cozy place to sit and browse through the books.

A Work Space

You don’t need much room for a compact home office. Install a desk or fitted work surface with roll-out filing cabinets or a stack of baskets underneath. Fix shelves to the walls above the desk and add a swivel chair on castors. Provide a telephone jack and power outlets for electronic equipment. Multi-purpose office machines, such as a combination phone, fax, and answering machine, fit into some remarkably small spaces.

Good lighting is essential, especially if you sit with your back to the natural light source. Wall-mounted bracket lighting may be more practical than a desk lamp, which takes up some of the valuable, but limited, space on your work surface.

A Sitting Corner

Set up a private sitting area under the stairs. All you need is some electric outlets, a comfortable chair, and a small side table – use one with a shelf or drawer underneath for pens, paper, or reading glasses. A wall-mounted adjustable spotlight or torchere with a dimmer switch gives you enough light to read, but allows you to dim the lights to a pleasant glow for a chat to family or friends.

A Display Area

Shallow under-stair spaces fitted with shelves are ideal for displaying collections of attractive objects, such as glass or china. Put up open shelving or place precious collections behind glass. It is also a good place to display collections of watercolors, delicate needlework or fabrics because they are usually protected from damaging exposure to direct sunlight.

Closed-in Space

You may decide to close in the space under the stairs instead. Using wooden panels, tongue-and-groove boards, or sheets of plywood effectively creates a useful storage closet. If you equip the area with plenty of hooks and shelves, you can store a large quantity of household paraphernalia away under there. For easy access, fit a full-size, outward-opening door a little away from the end wall, so that you can put shelves behind the door as well. Make sure that the space is adequately lit, locating the light switch by the door.

Utility space: You may even be able to keep large kitchen appliances, like a freezer, tumble dryer, or washing machine under the stairs. Like we discussed before check out the practicalities of installing power outlets and plumbing first, of course. Also ensure that you can comply with the regulations for adequate ventilation in windowless spaces by installing a ventilating kit for the dryer and an exhaust fan to the outside.

Cloakroom space: In many homes, there is enough room to add a toilet or mini-shower room under the stairs, as long as it is practicable to supply power outlets, plumbing, and ventilation. Consult a plumber for professional advice and be sure to get a quote for the work before embarking on the conversion.

I hope this post helps you create more square footage in your home giving you the added space for whatever your heart desires!

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