Closets, shelves and benches can make use of the dead space.
Architect Jordan Goldstein views the ubiquitous front-hall staircase as an "opportunity" to transform dead space into something at once useful and decorative: a bonus closet tucked behind either a seating-storage area or a display niche for family keepsakes and books.
"Why not take advantage of the entry point?" asks Goldstein, a principal in Washington. "Why clutter a tight foyer with furniture for mail, keys and flowers?"
None of his ideas work if the staircase leading up is built over basement stairs leading down. But, oh, a single, standard stairway at least three feet wide, he says, offers enough space for storage and seating possibilities while preserving structural support for the steps.
At its highest point, a narrow, under-stair closet is ideal for long coats and unwieldy sporting gear, such as hockey sticks. Smaller items go farther back.
A door hides everything in the closet, so time and money can be saved by skipping the drywall on the inside walls and ceiling.
The exterior of the closet is sheathed in drywall, which can be painted a single color to complement the decor. For a visual jolt, he suggests an accent hue because the darker shade "will seem like it's recessed."
Above the built-in bench -- a perfect place to sit while leashing the dog or removing boots -- Goldstein recesses three under-stair lights and adds a wall sconce. Below the bench, there is additional storage.
For the bookshelf-display space, which can function as a family photo and memento gallery, he breaks up the horizontal shelving with a vertical niche for tall flowers or a piece of sculpture.
The job should take about a week, from demolition to shelf-painting. An electrician may be required for lighting and wiring. Goldstein says a handy homeowner could do the job for about $1,500 plus lots of sweat equity; but it could also cost $4,000 to $8,000 with outside labor, depending on materials and the level of detail.
In a move to practice what he preaches, the architect is even now noodling with ways to tuck a small computer station under the back stairs of a two-story rear addition he is designing for his Bethesda, Md., home.