Stairs for Tiny Spaces

. 6 min read

Stairs are among the hardest things to design for in tiny houses. In this article, we'll look through all the options I've found for getting into lofts and second floors, along with the regulations for how they should be built.

1. Regular stairs

This option takes up the most amount of space. That's because stairs must meet certain specifications so that they are easy and safe to climb. According to Appendix Q of the 2018 International Residential Code (IRC), stairs must have:

  • Height of risers between 7 - 12 inches
  • Depth of treads =  20 inches  - 4/3 riser height
  • Minimum width of 20 inches
  • Handrails and landing platform

That's a lot of room! It could easily eat up most of your tiny house square footage. When people build full stairs into their tiny houses, it's usually combined with a space saving technique.

Build Tiny's Buster House uses all the space underneath as storage. You could use it as a closet or pantry, and store clunky appliances like the fridge and washer/dryer.
The Tiny Heirloom's design creates a cozy private spot. I love that there's a big nook for humans and a little one for a pet! I'm guessing that there's additional storage under the seats.
Mustard Seed Tiny Homes have beautiful open stairs. It still takes a lot of space but it visually looks more open. There could be room underneath for a desk to work from too.

I've also seen clever ideas like stairs with parts that can be pulled in and out, or have a secret folding table. There are so many great ways to fully utilize the space stairs take up.

2. Spiral Stairs

Spiral stairs take up minimum horizontal space and use angled steps to climb vertically. They can look beautiful and elegant.

Wind River Tiny Homes built the Mayflower with an elegant floating spiral staircase. The center pole acts as a hand rail until you get to the loft. Pretty sure this isn't to code though.
The Little Lou Tiny House has a functional and minimal spiral staircase. I love that just one side is covered.

Spiral staircases are harder to design, build, and climb. The IRC is also picky about what makes a "proper" spiral staircase:

  • Each step minimum of 26" width
  • <24.5" walkline radius, or the imaginary line where a person would walk
  • Tread depth >6.75" at walkline
  • Riser <9.5"
  • Head room >6.5'

The last bullet is going to be impossible for most tiny houses to hit. Unfortunately, spiral staircases for tiny houses are not in the 2018 IRC so you might have to make a choice between bending some code or dropping the use of a spiral staircase.

3. Ladder

Ladders are a great alternative to stairs if you're optimizing for space. All you need is a place to store the ladder and a place to lean or hook it up to the loft. The biggest downside is that they are not as easy to climb and you would most likely need both your hands. It's probably not so bad for a space that is infrequently accessed but imagine the effort it would take to climb down in the dark to go pee.

Handcrafted Movement's Seabrook combines a ladder with a shelf. I like that there's a pull bar at the very top. Also, a nice detail is that the last step is much higher so you can go on your knees into the loft rather than awkwardly crouching for that last step.
Sanctuary's Tiny Marta has a classy rolling ladder. I like this design because you can tuck the ladder away and slide it over quickly if you need it. The ladder can be unhooked and stored elsewhere, even shared with another loft so you don't need 2 ladders.

The 2018 IRC is very friendly towards ladders:

  • Rung width >12"
  • 10-14" between rungs
  • Able to support 200 lbs on each rung
  • Installed at 70 - 80° from horizontal, makes it more stable and easier to climb

Ladders and stairs are frequently combined in tiny houses that have more than one loft. You might have stairs for one side and a ladder for the other, two ladders, or a shared ladder that's used for both lofts.

3. Alternating Stairs

We can take inspiration from boat design, which uses alternating stairs and ship ladders to save space. It takes a bit of getting use to but they are safe to use at a steep angle and you can climb hands free. How much space does it save?

That's a ton of space saved! The only thing is that alternating steps look kinda awkward but there are plenty of great examples of how to do it elegantly.

Atelier Wilda's beautiful alternating staircase. You can still use the space saving ideas from stairs. In this design, it's got a ton of extra storage both underneath and in the bottom platform/seating area.
From an artist's studio on AirBnb. Looks a bit messy here, but you could make a custom desk that sits inside and extend the top step or two into bookshelves.
Simon Steffensen's alternating ladder looks amazing! I love the quirky angles. Probably not much fun to climb down and definitely not to code.

Rules for alternating stairs:

  • 20" wide steps
  • Tread depth >5"
  • Riser height <9.5"
  • Angle of descent 50 - 70° from horizontal
  • Need handrails

The rules for ship ladders/alternating ladders are pretty much the same.

5. Other

I think that covers most of the options, but you are only limited by your own ingenuity. There are other tactics like incorporating furniture as steps, or using a split level layout for shorter flights of stairs. I've included a few of my favorite wacky ones below.

Shin Ohori designed a climbing area inside a cabin. Build better grips climbing into bed!
The Tiny House Company's retractable ladder. It goes up into the loft when not in use. Seems flexible, although a potential downside might be taking extra space upstairs.
I love Build Tiny's Millennial Tiny House! They carefully designed the bathroom on the other side to account for the hidden stairs. It's a clever and strong design element.
Bcompact folding ladder. It's looks super nifty and tucks away when you don't need it. Seems difficult to build yourself but looks like the company is taking orders.
The best hack of all: no need for lofts! Just press a button and your bed comes to you. I just love this design from Living Vehicle, which builds RVs for full time living. I visited them at a Tiny House Festival and didn't even realize there was a whole bed up there.

I'd love to hear if there were other examples I missed. Leave a comment if you have any ideas.

Xin Xin

Designer of healthcare, games, ceramics, and tiny houses. Name translates to spicy happy in Chinese. Currently a senior product designer at One Medical.