Paul Dyer Photography

Staircases have often added a dramatic touch to a house, but in recent years architects and designers have discovered that there is also a practical and very important use for the contemporary floating version.

“[Floating stairs] can be very dramatic,” says architect Jonathan Feldman, principal of San Francisco–based Feldman Architecture. But because they float, he adds, “Light can filter through them. It’s one of the great architectural opportunities in a building.”

The problem for some builders, however, is that floating stairs are not easy to execute. “They require real skill, they need good structural support, and because of the codes, they usually require tight tolerances,” says Feldman, who often designs his homes with this type of staircase. “[They are] often a challenge for builders and contractors and usually expensive for homeowners.”

But the quasi-floating stair Feldman designed for this 1860s house in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood is an exception to the rule. Instead of the typical structural support for a floating staircase, Feldman specified standard 2x4 and 2x6 stud framing, which was covered in traditional drywall.

The architect then put in place 3-inch-thick oak treads, screwing them into the framing below and cantilevering them over the structural support. “The treads were thicker than they needed to be,” the architect says.

Not as visually heavy as a traditional treatment, the completed staircase permits light to filter down to the living areas on the first level. Plus, Feldman detailed the installation with 12½-inch-by-24-inch slate wall panels that snap into place with adhesive. But the best part of the whole process is that Feldman’s staircase design cost 75 percent less than a typical floating version.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.