How to Design Exterior Stairs

Written by shelley frost
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Designing exterior stairs involves more than just the aesthetic value of the project. The safety of your family and visitors is also a concern. Stairs that are too steep present a potential tripping hazard. The size of the risers and treads are the two main components of designing your stairs. The riser simply means the height from one step to the next. The tread is the surface on which you step as you climb the stairs.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Contact the local building department to get the building code regulations on exterior stairs. The building code dictates the specific sizes for the risers and treads as well as the degree of the stair slope. Building codes are often strict in terms of the allowed slope and the size of the stairs for safety reasons.

  2. 2

    Choose a material for the exterior steps. Wood, brick, poured concrete and prefabricated concrete steps are popular options. The style of the home, your budget and personal preference play a role in material selection.

  3. 3

    Determine the location for the exterior stairs. They often lead up to the front door, landing or a porch. Decide if the steps will come straight down away from the landing or if they go off to the side.

  4. 4

    Measure the height between the ground and the door, landing or porch. Measure the distance available where the stairs will run.

  5. 5

    Determine how wide your exterior steps will be. Most exterior stairs are at least 3 feet wide, but the building code for your area will define the minimum.

  6. 6

    Determine the size of the risers and treads on the stairs. As a general rule, the bigger the treads, the shorter the risers will be. A good general measurement is 7 inches for the risers and 10 inches for the treads. Make sure these measurements will work with local the building code.

  7. 7

    Calculate how many stairs you'll need based on the total height, the height of the risers and the size of the treads. Divide the total height by the height of the risers taking into account the thickness of the boards if you're building wooden steps.

  8. 8

    Choose a railing for the exterior stairs. Railing requirements vary by area.

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