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Contemplating Stairs When I Don’t Have Any

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By Bill Primavera

As a realtor who frequently serves senior members of our community, I am always aware of the presence of exterior steps or stairs inside that must be negotiated on any given property. Note how homes and condos catering to older citizens boast “no steps” as a selling point.

For the past five years, I have lived in a new one-level condominium with no steps, but for many years before that, I had lived in a colonial home with a steep set of stairs going down to the basement and another going to the second floor and still another going to the attic. Since I ran a business that required storage of materials in both the basement and the attic, I was often going up and down stairs. It was probably my primary form of exercise getting from one level to the other.

I can’t say that I miss all those steps. The last time I climbed any stairs was during a fire drill when we were asked not to use our elevator. It almost killed me.

While stairs fill a very practical function of getting from one level to another, they can also make a very dramatic architectural statement in a home, from a soaring floating staircase in a central hall to a modern circular staircase winding around a column to a higher floor.

And speaking of circular stairs, have you ever wondered why they wind counterclockwise when all of us tend to do things in a clockwise pattern? (Find the answer to that question at the end of this column.)

From grand castles to humble cottages, stairways have allowed more living space under the same roof by providing a means to get from one level to another. Unless you live in a ranch-style home or a one-level apartment or condo as I do, you climb stairs. Some of us love the transition from one living space to another. For years, I felt that I couldn’t possibly sleep on the same floor as where I ate. But aging knees helped me overcome that requirement.

While we might focus on the architectural and practical contributions stairs make to a home, they also add greatly to the statistics of accidents, even death, in the home. All too often, homeowners take a dive down the stairway, especially when descending. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to climb steps than to go down even if the physical effort is greater when we are ascending.

My theory is that we feel more confident about where to place our feet going up, but many of us seem not to be as surefooted heading down, especially for people whose feet are larger than the width of the step.

I’m personally very conscious of the possibility of accidents on stairs, perhaps because of the story my mother frequently told. At two years old, I opened the door to the basement and fell down a steep flight of stairs, landing on my head on the concrete basement floor. My mother screamed thinking I was dead.

And, I remember with dread the day my wife and I received a call from a neighbor saying that our daughter had fallen down a flight of stairs in her home while on a play date. She, too, survived the incident.

In “Gone with the Wind,” three very dramatic incidents take place on the stairs:  when Rhett scoops up Scarlett in his arms and bounds up the staircase, three steps at a time, to their bedroom; when Scarlett falls down the steps and miscarries; and in the movie’s last scene where Scarlett drags herself to the stairs to declare that somehow she’ll win Rhett back.

But aside from the dramatic turn they might offer, stairs can be dangerous. More than 15,000 people die each year as a result of falls and as many as 1,300 of those take place by falling down stairs; additionally, many people suffer injuries on stairs, which are frequently not reported. Many accidents happen when there is an uneven step in a series. Actually, this was done intentionally in the distant past as a security measure to trip up enemies entering or leaving a property.

Now, about the reason that circular steps were designed in the Middle Ages in a counterclockwise pattern: At that time, it was critically important to safeguard the castle with stairs running counterclockwise. A defender of the castle would be on a higher level of the stairs and could therefore swing his sword freely in the open space to his right but his enemies below would keep hitting the wall to their right.  Clever, huh?

Bill Primavera is a realtor associated with William Raveis Real Estate and founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. (www.PrimaveraPR.com). His real estate site is www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com. To engage the talents and services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

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