S house by Biscoe Wilson Architects

During the holidays Slow Home will be re-running archived content,  we will return in 2010 with new episodes.

  • Paul C

    Love the stairs. I would interested to know how rigid the cantilevered treads are. I have seen this technique before but not to the extent that is used here. I think what this project also demonstrates, at least in plan, is the notion of that outdoor living space that is integrated into the overall design, something that we did discuss this past week. It appears at least from the concept plan that there is an alcove, behind the garage, orientated to take advantage of the sun.

  • John Brown

    I know what you mean about the stair cantilever – it doesn’t seem structurally possible. Perhaps I can get an answer from the architects.

    Also a good comment about the integration of outdoor living space. I believe that the door at the stair opens onto a walled garden at the front of the house. It would be nice to see an image of that area.

  • Louis Pereira

    John – I’d love to know how they did that stair cantilever as well…Hope you’re able to get an answer.

  • Jim Argeropoulos

    It is interesting that not only do they change from cantilevered to solid, but the also change material as well almost as if they want you to notice.
    I like how that first stair carries on for a while.

  • Cat

    Am I the only one whose first thought was how hard it was going to be to clean under those stairs?

  • Elva

    Cat – that was my first thought too. If its a hard surface a long handled mop should work.

    I initially thought I might like the risers on the fixed stairs painted white to give more consistent appearance to the steps and perhaps give the illusion that they were floating too. After viewing the pictures for a while I came to view the cantilevered stairs and landing to the exterior a large “structurist” art piece (reminds me of works by Eli Bornstein) and came to appreciate that as a sculptural element apart from the fixed stairs.

  • Murray

    Hello John et al.,

    John, thank you for this site, and kudos to you for your endless energy towards its maintenance. I have been following this site as a “voyeur” since the Globe article a few weeks ago, and am now taking the plunge to participate in the conversation.

    I am sorry to be a “nay” sayer but I am struggling with the appeal of this staircase. I write as a visual artist, not an trained architect, and I find the staircase quite boring both as architecture and as sculpture.

    Further I write after some time reflecting on my negative reaction,after multiple viewings of the video clip, and in response to your, and others, positive comments. I think it was the image of the person frozen in motion at the transition between the cantilevered steps and the rest of the staircase that really brought it home for me. Their movement is arrested – as if they are asking “What am I supposed to do now? I am not sure where I am – one moment I am flying towards heaven, and with the next step I will be back firmly on the ground? Where do I go from here?” Their indecision as to how they are supposed to negotiate that space speaks volumes.

    The other photographic views of the staircase did nothing to mitigate my opinion of the success of the staircase.

    Certainly there is a moment of interest while trying to understand the structural physics of the cantilever, and even the regular, experienced and skills participants of this site are intrigued, but I have to ask – does this staircase go beyond mere initial titillation? Is this good architecture, or is it merely good engineering? The staircase seems to me like a technical exercise and not much more, and, as such, is fine in theory, but less so in practice. Just because it can be done, should it?

    As a piece of sculpture the staircase seems so non-committal – why 3 cantilevered steps? Why? – in the first place, but then, if so, why not fewer, or more steps? I can’t figure it out – is it that the building code would only allow for this indiscriminate number of steps without a handrail?

    The functional necessity of a standard riser height and run length also creates an artistically monotonous rhythm of steps further enhanced by the contrast of the dark wood with the lighter surroundings. And the void beneath the steps, not actively involved in the sculptural aspirations of the staircase, only serves to expose and enhance the engineering rather than making any creative architectural statement.

    For me, the only part of the stair that works as both architecture and sculpture is the long first step which performs an important role in allowing transition of mind and body from one area of the house to the next.

  • John Brown

    Thank you for the very thoughtful comments.

    Your analysis of the stair from a sculptural point of view is very interesting and I agree with many of your observations. Architecture (and sculpture for that matter) is a big tent and it can, and should, contain many differing attitudes towards what it good, beautiful, etc.

    What I find most noteworthy about your comment is the way in which you describe the stair in use – “the long first step which performs an important role in allowing the transition of mind and body from one are of the house to the next”.

    That is a great way to think about designing a stair because it engages the idea of what the stair is meant to DO (or what it helps someone to do) not just how it looks.

  • James Scott

    I like the idea of the cantilevered steps starting the rise to the upper level. To me it invokes the question whether I am welcome to enter this space? If beyond the stairs this is bedroom or other private space then I feel it has created the perception of a threshold without the use of a physical barrier. Terrific job!

  • Terri

    I’ve had some difficulty deciding how I reacted to these stairs too. I admire the contrasting materials, yet I also wondered about cleaning up the dust bunnies and outdoor debris, because this space obviously must be kept pristine to have the effect it does.

    After more consideration I’ve decided that apart from not hitting us over the head with the steps’ function, there is another suggestion of movement. Perhaps this is why the person was photographed moving. I interpret this “moving” suggestion as another way to allow the person entering beside it to not feel that this staircase impedes their approach. They can breeze on through, much as the bench and sandstone floor suggest one do. Of course, the dramatic colour contrast does draw attention too, so a person would stop and consider just what those stairs are doing there.

    My general impression of going up those stairs is that you must choose to do so. First, you have to watch your footing, and then you are drawn upwards, as if climbing a ladder. Such a deliberate choice makes whatever is up there seem even more intriguing to see.

    Then again, the architects admit to wanting to create “drama” when they redesigned this house for its streetscape, so possibly that same overall thinking went into the stairs too. That extra-long bottom step is exceptionally dramatic, after all.

  • Richard Robinson

    Although we’re focusing on the stairs, it’s interesting to note how the bridge over the front door creates a compressed spaced between the larger outside world and the double-height hallway inside. It’s a very FLW-type spatial arrangement that marks the transition from one space to another. If the stairs had simply run up the inside wall removing the need for the bridge, the space wouldn’t have been as successful.


  • John Brown

    A very interesting interpretation of the stair. I very much like the underlying sense of architecture as choreography. The architect’s concept drawing of the space has that implied sense of double movement – one straight through to the old house and another curving around and up to the new space.

  • John Brown

    Thank you for mentioning this.

    It is a very important part of the design and something I forgot to discuss. I think it is interesting to think about how the two ‘movement paths’ that Terri remarked on intersect at the front door and are marked by this compression of space.

    As in Frank LLoyd Wright’s houses, that small reduced height space makes the main space feel all that much taller and more expansive.

  • Terri

    The bridge element is something to be considered. It serves as another visual (and physical, as one crosses it) reminder of the separation of the two main parts of the home.

    Richard, I’m ignorant of the term “FLW-type”. Could someone please explain? I’m learning more and more on this site.
    Thanks again, John, for creating and maintaining these discussions. I’ve become quite addicted (as a former interior designer who once wanted to become an architect–illness nixed it).

  • Terri

    DUH!! FLW–The Frank Lloyd Wright! I should have figured that out sooner. My excuse–it’s a holiday weekend and sunny–and I’m on the West Coast!

  • Richard Robinson

    @ Terri

    My bad. I constantly see his name abbreviated as FLW so I didn’t think about the fact that others might have not. Sorry.