Reader SOS – Steph’s Basement Stairs

I’m back with another “DIY Playbook, Save our Space”. My plan for this series is to take a reader’s space and (virtually) offer design tips and tricks on how to improve it.

Here are some of my favorite design solutions from this series…

How Do I Transform Our Basement Stairs?

modern city condo living room
Andrea’s Home Tour

Today’s, design dilemma comes from Steph. Fun fact: Steph is actually the sister of Andrea, whose home we featured a few years ago! Like her sister, Steph’s design dilemma submission came with a PowerPoint presentation, complete with photos and measurements of her space and the basement steps. You know I love a fellow organized gal.

Steph needs help with the staircase going down to her basement and play area – which you’ll soon see. It’s adorable! While she likes the open sight lines, it’s also a bit of a hazard. Let’s take a look at her space.

Steph’s Design Dilemma

I love the openness of our basement stairwell, but it’s not ideal for little kids.  We always supervise them when they play in the basement, and my kids are not at all the daredevil type BUT this just feels like a hazard long term.  I worry about my kids as well as other kid guests – cousins, friends, etc. And it would be nice to send them to the basement for independent play since we have such a great space set up for them!

  • Pro: I like that it is open and can see what’s going on down there
  • Con: One day, a kid will realize they can slide down on the white part, or worse, jump from the landing to the couch!
Stair playhouse

We created this little playhouse for the kids, and I want to make sure whatever we do does not clash with this fun little wall.  I would like to avoid drywalling and closing off the space completely, but it’s hard to decide if we need something like spindle railings (Black iron or white wood?) OR some sort of custom glass/plexiglass? 

First, Some Staircase Terminology

Our staircase makeover and modern home transformation

I never understood all of the various components of a staircase until we renovated the staircase in our home. I was using terms interchangeably, but they all have different meanings.

Before we dive into Steph’s design plan, let me share these with you. Don’t say I never taught you something.

  • Stair treads: Flat, horizontal surfaces that you step on.
  • Stair Riser: Vertical panels that connect the tread.
  • Handrail: Horizontal rail that runs along the length of the staircase. It’s typically mounted to the wall or supported by balusters.
  • Balusters OR Spindles: These are the vertical posts that support the handrail. They’re evenly spaced to prevent people from falling off the staircase. These terms can be used interchangeably.
  • Newel Post: This is a larger, often decorative post positioned at the bottom and top of the staircase and at key turning points.
  • Landing: Flat area that provides a resting point or change in direction of the staircase.

My Basement Stair Ideas

Stair playhouse

Can you even with that cute playhouse? Guys!! I stopped in my tracks when I saw the adorableness of that space. What a perfect spot for a DIY playhouse. We certainly do not want to detract from the cuteness of the playroom. But I can see why Steph wants to make the open stairs a safer place for her family and any small children who come over to play.

Today, I’m going to walk you through my thought process when I’m working on a new project. I always consider all of the options and slowly remove them from my design plan if they’re not the right fit. Let’s discuss a few of the potential designs that Steph mentioned in her note.

Plexiglass Staircase

Photo by Irvin Serrano for HGTV

The first thing I considered was Steph’s plexiglass idea (or glass panels) as a way to keep the sight lines open and make the space feel larger. These could be used along the entire staircase from the landing all the way down the stairs.

But then I thought of my own home and the fingerprints that my kids seem to leave on every glass surface, and I changed my tune. My kids would be pressing their faces against this glass all day long! This was quickly nixed from my design plan.

Horizontal Cable Railing

Our new deck in the backyard

My next idea was to go with horizontal railings using a thin material like cables for the new stairs. Wanting to keep that view to the basement as open as possible, this seemed like a good idea. We have cable rails on our back deck and love the look. We’re able to see into the yard and our view isn’t obstructed by bulky spindles.

Choosing the best basement stairs ideas for a space

However, since this design dilemma is all about creating a kid-friendly space, I quickly realized that horizontal rails wouldn’t be the best option. Kids can use them as steps to climb and it might be too intriguing for some young visitors when they come over to play.

Our kids know not to step on our deck railings in the backyard, but we have had to tell a few visitors to stay off of them. Knowing that, I would probably advise against those in this instance.

Vertical Spindles

White spindles on this staircase
Photo by Kim Cornelison for Better Homes & Gardens

After considering all of the options, I think Steph’s best bet is to go with a traditional stair railing and vertical spindles along the basement stairs.

white spindles and white oak handrail in a beachy stairwell
Photo by Lindsey Harris for HGTV

I would go with spindles similar to the photos above – nothing too ornate, but vertical and thin. This would keep the space looking light and airy and wouldn’t distract from the cute colors of the playroom area.

My new stairwell accent wall
Our Staircase Makeover

Steph did mention black iron balusters in her initial note, but I’m not certain that would look best in this instance. You know I love the look of black iron railings, like we have in our home. However, since we want to match the look of the rest of the basement, I don’t think that material is best.

Basement staircase ideas
Photo by Jessica Glynn for Better Homes & Gardens

I stumbled upon this image and I like the lattice as a potential for the landing area. It has a very charming look that would complement the adorable playhouse below. It has a kitschy and cottage feel to it.

stair measurements

She only has about 28 inches from the platform on the landing to the ceiling. That’s not a lot of available space, so I’m not certain if a contractor would recommend installing into the ceiling above, or would go with a newel post to secure the spindles on the landing.

This would definitely be worth a conversation with a professional who is familiar with local building codes.

Wood Handrails

a white and wood staircase
Photo by Raquel Langworthy Photography

As for the handrail and newel posts, these could certainly be kept white to keep them from being too distracting.

I’m not certain about the style of the main floor of Steph’s home, but if she wanted a more modern look, a wood-toned handrail on the wall and on the spindle side would look sharp. I would do this in a similar wood tone as their basement floors.

The Final Basement Stair Design

Here’s my plan for Steph’s design dilemma.

  • Go with thin white spindles along the stairs.
  • Continue the white spindles at the landing OR opt for a horizontal lattice for a kitschy look.
  • Use a wood-toned handrail above spindles with white newel posts.
  • Swap out the wall-mounted handrails to wood to match the basement floor.
  • Bonus Points: She could always consider a carpet runner to increase the safety of the stairs and add a bright color to this playful space. Here’s my DIY stair runner tutorial for that project.

I hope it was helpful peeking inside my brain as I figured out the best options when working on a new space. It was fun to peruse these staircase designs and come up with a practical solution for Steph’s lower level.

Any Other Good Ideas To Share?

These are just my thoughts for Steph, but I would love to hear what you think. Perhaps you have a similar basement setup and you’ve come up with a solution that’s both aesthetically pleasing and functional. Please share in the comments below!


The Year of Casey

Hey there!

I’m Casey Finn, the voice behind The DIY Playbook. I’m a Chicago gal teaching you how to design, DIY, and maintain your home…by yourself! Learn more about me right here.