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Stone Stepping

5-yrsBy Bruce Zaretsky

‘Stairs, to borrow an immortal phrase from Rodney Dangerfield, “get no respect.” ’  

That’s how Bruce Zaretsky opened his August 2008 column in WaterShapes, then continued:  ‘[I]f my observations through the years tell me anything, the stairs set in far too many landscapes are strictly utilitarian objects – no more than a means of getting from one level of a space to another.  The only thought that seems to go into some of them has to do with avoiding trip hazards, which is important but hardly the most aesthetically oriented of approaches to take.’

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‘In my experience, when stairs are considered in deliberate and creative ways, they can become much more than a conveyance and can indeed lend a great deal of beauty and unique visual interest to almost any setting.’

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‘To be fair, not all steps are treated shabbily.  Many architects, for example, design spectacular, grand staircases for upscale homes and make them a vital part of the architectural program.  In landscapes, however, too many designers seem to look at slopes and think, “We need a set of steps here” instead of recognizing that these slopes present them with opportunities to create stairways of great beauty.’

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‘Sometimes steps don’t have to be anything more than an informal set of stone slabs placed throughout a garden.  In other cases, they can be central features in formal landscapes – luxurious affairs made with incredible, hand-cut stone and fitted with broad treads, elaborate railings and strategically placed landings.’  

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‘The prime design principle I apply with garden steps is that they should never be daunting or off-putting.  That is, they shouldn’t look too steep or in any way seem treacherous, nor should they be visually jarring; rather, they should draw observers to them and invite people to climb their risers, alight on their treads and experience their stability.’  

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‘No matter which material or style you choose for your steps, the most important consideration is making certain they “fit.”  That word, of course, has at least two meanings in this context:  First, you need to make sure the steps don’t look like they were plopped in to the space; instead, they should seem as though they were unearthed on site and have proportions suited to the space.  Second, they must be designed in consideration of human scale and must be carefully thought out and properly designed.’  

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‘The most comfortable steps allow you to proceed upwards (or downwards) with a natural stride and have you alternating feet as you go, whether it’s a normal staircase or a series of landings.  To avoid any problems here, in laying out steps for installation, I’ll always pace off the steps and landings and mark where my opposite foot wants to step up:  This is where I’ll place my next step.’  

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‘This focus on the way people use the steps is why, as mentioned earlier, I do what I can to keep runs of steps to five at a maximum before I insert a landing:  I want to give them an experience rather than a chore.  A landing affords my clients and their guests a place to rest, smell the roses, look around the garden from a unique perspective and assess the next steps they’ll be taking.   And if they reach that landing with their right feet, I want to make certain they’ll approach the next step up with their left feet.’

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‘As I’ve mentioned time and again in this column, what actually happens in step installation is much less about rules than it is about the site and its requirements.  Steep or narrow, long and graceful or short and expansive,’ Bruce concluded, ‘what it takes to get steps right is making certain they fit – not only in the setting but for the people who will use them.’

Do you agree with Bruce that steps are indeed a major landscape feature and deserve respect?  Do they often enter into your projects?  How do you work with them – and your clients?  Please share your thoughts on Bruce’s perspective (and yours) by commenting below!  


Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky & Associates, Inc. a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y.  You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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