contemporary garden steps


While changes of level can be problematic, they offer an opportunity to transform a problematic transition into an advantage – a one that is important ergonomically and visually. Steps can be discrete offering a gentle transit from one spot to another as the eye may be engaged with planting and other textures. Steps can be dramatic announcing themselves as a key architectural focal point. Working in a contemporary vernacular and preferring asymmetrical compositions I would usually offset a set of steps from the centre as this adds movement and depth to a space. Ergonomically I believe that step risers and treads should be detailed to provide the safest most comfortable experience. In small urban spaces this often presents a conundrum when short landings must be extended at the cost of social space.

1. Stone & wood 2. Sandstone 3. Hardwood 4. Movable 5. Light 6. Solid 7. Floating

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  1. STONE & WOOD.

Back in 2003 I decided to use a hardwood fascia with a stone tread in a garden in Wandsworth. It was indeed the first instance and it worked beautifully. Since then I have created many variations on this theme using different materials and lighting techniques. It has a Japanese garden feel to it as these natural elements, stone and wood, are common in Eastern gardens in edge detailing and paths. When the step is detailed quite shallow around 15 cm with floating gaps of up to 10mm between all the riser components the step appears lightweight and elegant. In this garden, ipe hardwood and buff Yorkstone are used in a step spanning the whole width of the house and about 1.25m deep. This creates a comfortable landing as a viewing promenade outside the doors and is flanked by two focal point on either end: a multi-stem Eucalyptus on the right and a Lime tree on the left.

contemporary garden steps stone and wood

Regent's Park garden


The beautiful stone in this garden is a blue-grey Chinese sandstone imported from China to match the kitchen’s tiles of 400x400mm. This small urban garden has a majestic woodland feel due to the surrounding vegetation and the light therefore graces this stone delicately. The stone flags for the garden are no more than the usual 50mm thick but for the step edge I decided to use a full height stone which acts as both the riser and the tread. At 110mm thick the step also benefits from a small 40mm black recessed riser which makes it appear floating and alleviates the weightiness of the stone thickness. The step runs the whole width of the green with the new sawn smooth sandstone meeting the old textural walls on the perimeter. The blue tone of the stone is contrasted by the slanted terracotta pots on the right, an orange water feature on the left and small beach pebbles in front.

contemporary garden steps sandstone

Kensington small garden


Here in a conserved wharf building near Tower Bridge I developed a large roof garden. We naturally needed to use lightweight materials and so decking, tiles and artificial grass were the best candidates. With a new skylight fitted at the top level I needed to add another step giving a total of two as otherwise the handrail would be too low at the tiles section. Using a 6” balau hardwood running in one direction, I then detailed the top edge and the steps treads in the same wood though in 4” boards to distinguish the transition. The warmth of the wood is ideal for the high social use of the garden and contrasts the lightness of the tiles and colour of the grass. The gaps between the risers allowed me to insert LED light strips to create a dramatic light effect at night. The angle of the steps, wrapped around the corner of the building leads one from one space to the next with ergonomic ease.

contemporary garden steps hardwood

Shad Thames roof garden


Cromwell Tower in the Barbican is a listed building – a remnant of brutalist British architecture in the 1960’s. Here on the 40th floor, when the wind ceases howling and the sun begins to set, the view to the West becomes truly spectacular. The old and new city merge with St Paul’s Cathedral in front of the London Eye and Big Ben in front of Batter Power Station; The Gherkin beside Tower 42 and the O2 Centre to the East. In order to benefit this view, otherwise blocked by the tall concrete walls, I devised a platform from which to admire the landscape. The steps are detachable and movable on castors to avoid a permanent structure by the wall while the powder coated frame is clad in sandstone treads.

contemporary garden steps movable

Cromwell Tower roof terrace

  5. LIGHT.

This LED light strip is sandwiched between a sandstone tread and an oak riser. It follows the elegant straight lines of the deck angle, contrasting the curved stone promenade to the left and the perpendicular lines of the deck to the right. With beautiful London brick walls, illuminating the curves in the 2 vases creates great ambience, echoed in the light strip in the step. This 14 cm fascia appears light, floats on an 8mm shadow gap and is easy to step on and off. Separating the operation of the light from the rest of the circuits gives good control over the desired mood.

contemporary garden steps light

Tempus Wharf roof terrace

  6. SOLID.

A continuation of the concept in the Kensington garden, this project in Dorset was a study in stone. There are 17 steps leading down into the courtyard from the upper parking space down to a grass landing in artificial turf. A further flight of 4 steps joins into the garden at an angle and it was this configuration, which inspired the chunky detailing. I wanted to be able to cut the angled sections of the steps in full pieces and specifying the stone at 110mm thick meant this will create a robust architectural element. Floating in recessed dark plinths and illuminated with lights the smooth sawn grey Chinese stone merges into the 300-year-old textural walls of the courtyard. The grey stone is contrasted with veined brown sandstone flooring on the main courtyard lounge to be repeated again at the next step leading to the dining area.

contemporary garden steps solid

Sandbanks courtyard garden


When modernising this roof terrace in Highgate the benefit of a solid wall by the upper landing gave an opportunity to semi-cantilever a large flight of stairs. A steel frame was devised to carry the weigh of stone, which was then powder coated and fixed to the wall and floor leaving the main part floating. 4 majestic pieces of buff sandstone 1.5 metres long were dressed onto the steel frame to provide warm open treads. The sandstone is lit up underneath with LED strips and is repeated in the dining part of the terrace.

contemporary garden steps floating

Highgate roof terrace

As I spend much time working on roof terraces, which tend to be mostly flat, detailing steps is a feast reserved to work on gardens primarily. From my experience it is always best to be generous when detailing steps and always bear the user in mind – how one will pass through the space, what they will look at, smell, touch and how comfortable, safe and easy their short passage will be. While designing steps to mitigate existing changes of level is a necessity, in flat gardens and roof terraces sometimes it is beneficial to create them from scratch if possible. Small changes of level add a lot of interest to a space and three dimensional qualities in shadows, seating, lighting and planting opportunities.

amir   Written, photographed (unless indicated) and posted by Amir Schlezinger.

contemporary garden steps

St George Wharf roof gardens

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