The Dangerous Truth About Dutch Staircases (And Why They Might Not Be Around Much Longer)

published Sep 11, 2019
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Credit: Winkie Visser/Apartment Therapy

Recently, a Facebook friend moved to the Netherlands and posted pictures of the horrendously steep staircase in her rental. I was horrified: It looked like a deathtrap to me! However, a bunch of people started responding how those very steep steps were common over there: Almost every old historic building had them. My interest was piqued. Why were they built like this? Was it intentional? I put my research cap on.

Known by travelers and expats as “Dutch stairs,” these staircases are smaller and harder to traverse than your standard staircase. This is because most stairs are built on the principles of 17th century French architect Francois Blondel. In total, a standard step measures 63 to 65 centimeters, and is comprised of two risers (the vertical part) and one tread (the horizontal part where the foot will rest). Normally, this ends up so the riser is about half of the tread.

In the Dutch model, however the tread is about the same size as the the riser, says Mirjam IJsseling, a project manager with Architectuur Centrum Amsterdam. This means in Dutch staircases, there isn’t much space for the foot—only about 15 centimeters compared to the minimum of 30 centimeters in modern buildings. Not only are they incredibly steep, but they’re also smushed in between narrow walls and often built at strange angles.

Historical Roots

Why were they built like this? Time for an interesting history lesson: In the 17th century, Amsterdam’s economy boomed, and the wealthy decided to relocate to the city. The only problem was there wasn’t that much real estate to go around, just narrow plots of land. Builders had to build up instead of out.

The thing is, the Dutch were somewhat new to building stairs: According to IJssleing, despite being multiple stories, many of the original homes built in the city during the Middle Ages didn’t have stairs. (All but two of these original wood-framed houses burnt down by the start of the 16th century.) Amsterdam gets cold in the winter and many homes had a hearth. Upper floors had no way to be heated, and thus were unusable for much of the year. In the warmer months, dwellers would use movable ladders to get upstairs.

By the time the Dutch were tasked with rebuilding after two massive fires, stone chimneys had been invented and coal was widely available, so these new buildings not only had chimneys, but stairs, too. But since space was limited, builders had to be creative—thus the un-ideally steep, narrow staircases. IJsslesing says stairs in the Netherlands then became a status symbol. In the larger canal houses owned by the wealthy elite, you’re likely to find wider, “more lazy” stairs that take up more space.

As you can imagine, these stairs have become quite a safety hazard over the years. Besides the obvious concerns of falling, tripping, and slipping, these narrow, steep stairs pose additional hazards in the event of an emergency or fire. Additionally, they’re not accessible, says Linda Hayslett, an interior designer and construction planner with LH.Designs in New York City, and would not be especially hospitable to a chairlift conversion.

And while you might think moving would be a special pain, remember: The Dutch have their own way around that, too: Most old buildings in Amsterdam have hooks on their gable roofs that allow them to hoist up furniture and other heavy, bulky items to be received through the upper-level windows of a home. Need a visual? Here’s a video of an oven being lifted into an apartment.

However, you won’t find any newly-constructed homes with the old-fashioned staircase design. According to IJssleing, in 1992, the country put forth their first Bouwbesluit (building decree) that defined regulations for stairs in all newly-built buildings. Since these steep stairs are a safety hazard, all newly-built public buildings and residences need to follow updated specifications. But since space is still an issue, Dutch architects have found creative ways to build code-complying staircases without sacrificing much space. For example, IJssleing points to this 55-square-meter summer home and this studio loft in Amsterdam.

So there you have it: Another case of necessity breeding invention. I gotta say, I’m pretty thankful Blondel came along right in time once New Amsterdam was being built. While we may have small spaces in the states—especially in New York and San Francisco—the worst we have seems to be bathtubs in kitchens, which I will take over a steep staircase any day!

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