Under Stair Cabinet:

Harry Potter's Realm: The Under-stair Space

The area under the stairs is often neglected. Once you recognize its potential, however, you can transform it in a variety of ways. With a little thought you could turn it into an efficient storage area, designed around your particular needs; or you could open it up into a room or hallway, thus increasing available space and giving your home a more open-plan feel.

Depending on the pitch of the stairs, there may be enough room at one end to stand, in which case the space can be put to many uses. If the water supply and drain lines are close, you could install a shower or toilet, or even turn the area into a mini-utility room, fitted with a washing machine and dryer.

However you decide to use the space, aim to unify it with the surrounding decor by painting it in the same colors or papering it in similar wallpaper. Continue the existing floor covering, if possible, or keep closely to its tone and style, even if you are using the space for storage. That way the newly converted area looks a planned part of your home, rather than an afterthought.

Opening up the Space

The ease with which you can open up the area under the stairs depends on the type of staircase and its position in the house. In many instances the space under the staircase is already enclosed by paneling and opening it up simply involves removing the wood panels. Before you start though, it is important to assess the construction of your staircase.

The simplest type of staircase - a straight staircase supported at the top against a wall - is the easiest to open up because the timbers under the stair serve only to support the paneling. A straight staircase between two side walls (with access to the space from an adjoining room) is the most difficult to open up as both walls are likely to be load bearing. In this situation you need professional advice and help, and perhaps a building permit, before you can remove the walls.

With quarter-turn, half-turn, and some straight staircases that extend onto a landing, the top of the stairs and intermediate landings are supported by a large timber post called a newel. You can easily identify it because it is much bigger than the timbers that support the understair area, and usually lines up with the corner post of the stairs above.

You should never remove a newel post without consulting an architect or builder first, as it is a complicated structural conversion that may require a building permit. If you do go ahead and remove it without professional advice, the stairs above could fall down on you. However, you can remove the paneling which screens off the area under the stairs without any fear of collapse, and then plan how you use the space around the newel post.

A Library

If you have a fairly large space and lots of books and magazines, how about setting up a mini-library? Line the walls under the stairs with shelves - adjustable ones are a good idea, allowing you to vary and alter the spacing to store all sizes of books and magazines. Painting the shelves to match the baseboard and other moldings gives the space an integrated feel. Use recessed spotlights or angled floor lamps to illuminate the books as well as to provide reading light. For a really high-tech touch, fix up strip lighting on the shelves themselves to highlight the books.

If space permits, add a comfortable chair, looking out into the room or hall. The stairs themselves often protect the space underneath from drafts, making it a cozy place to sit and browse through the books.

A Work Space

You don't need much room for a compact home office. Install a desk or fitted work surface with roll-out filing cabinets or a stack of baskets underneath. Fix shelves to the walls above the desk and add a swivel chair on castors. Provide a telephone jack and power outlets for electronic equipment. Multi-purpose office machines, such as a combination phone, fax, and answering machine, fit into some remarkably small spaces.

Good lighting is essential, especially if you sit with your back to the natural light source. Wall-mounted bracket lighting may be more practical than a desk lamp, which takes up some of the valuable, but limited, space on your work surface.

A Telephone Corner

Set up a private telephone area under the stairs. All you need is a phone and phone jack, a comfortable chair, and a telephone table - use one with a shelf or drawer underneath for message pads, pens, and telephone books. A wall-mounted adjustable spotlight or torchere with a dimmer switch gives you enough light to read phone numbers, but allows you to dim the lights to a pleasant glow for a chat to family or friends.

A Display Area

Shallow under-stair spaces fitted with shelves are ideal for displaying collections of attractive objects, such as glass or china. Put up open shelving or place precious collections behind glass. It is also a good place to display collections of watercolors, delicate needlework or fabrics because they are usually protected from damaging exposure to direct sunlight.

Closed-in Space

You may decide to close in the space under the stairs instead. Using wooden panels, tongue-and-groove boards, or sheets of plywood effectively creates a useful storage closet. If you equip the area with plenty of hooks and shelves, you can store a large quantity of household paraphernalia away under there. For easy access, fit a full-size, outward-opening door a little away from the end wall, so that you can put shelves behind the door as well. Make sure that the space is adequately lit, locating the light switch by the door.

Utility space: You may even be able to keep large kitchen appliances, like a freezer, tumble dryer, or washing machine under the stairs. Check out the practicalities of installing power outlets and plumbing first, of course. Also ensure that you can comply with the regulations for adequate ventilation in windowless spaces by installing a ventilating kit for the dryer and an exhaust fan to the outside.

Cloakroom space: In many homes, there is enough room to add a toilet or mini-shower room under the stairs, as long as it is practicable to supply power outlets, plumbing, and ventilation. Consult a plumber for professional advice and be sure to get a quote for the work before embarking on the conversion.

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