The elliptical staircase on a courtyard of the Dodge residence in downtown Raleigh is the product of a personal, hands-on collaboration between an architect, his client and handpicked skilled artisans.
It’s also a monument to the gentle art of persuasion.
Its genesis lay with a client who first suggested a circular stairway for the front of his “modern Victorian” residence, an infill project to be nestled among the real late-19th century items. Vernacular Studio persuaded him to consider positioning the staircase at the side of the building, establishing it as a destination and focal point in the courtyard, rather than a latter-day turret overlooking the street.
Its construction was as much about building relationships — with stonemasons, steelworkers, plasterers, and carpenters — as it was about giving form and shape to a vision.
“It was a marriage of technology and the arts. The final design kind of unfolded as we went along,” says Brett Hautop, principal at Vernacular. “I actually drew all the templates for the design of the inner and outer ellipses, sent them to a CNC shop, and then the process evolved in the field.”
He used CAD to design and create wood patterns to be cut on CNC milling machines, providing form for the foundation and the bottom and top plates. They’d already looked at an all-steel option (“too expensive, and didn’t feel right”), at a custom execution from a wood stair company (“extremely cost prohibitive”) and finally, at a carpenter named Bob, an experienced stair builder (“very talented, no employees, and the right price”).
Vernacular discussd constructability, durability, strength, costs, and aesthetics with the contractor on site. Then they called in Bob. They presented the project to him as a challenge, in an effort to bring out his best effort.
“You’re telling me you want it to be perfect.” Bob said.
“Well, yes,” Brett agreed. “That’s what it has to be.”
He built the stringers on site, using only hand tools, a level, a plumb bob and router, out of glue-laminated 1/8-inch plywood layered to create a 3-inch thickness. The exterior stringer was braced against the stone wall under simultaneous construction, and the interior stringer, against temporary framing. When the stringers were completed, the temporary bracing was removed.
Treads are visible at the edge, with no trim used anywhere, so that the eye can follow the line of tread to riser all the way to the top, something the architect thought extremely important, but which also increased the degree of difficulty for the carpenter. The handrail was built the same way.
“The stair is strong as steel, literally,” Brett said. “It’s the product of relationship-building. It’s about recognizing that we all have limitations, but also about pushing each other to bring out our best.”
For more on Vernacular Studio, go to www.vstudio3.com.