“Garden design” tends to conjure up a picture of grand designs and fanciful creativity but very often the London or urban garden designer finds themself dealing with the technical minutiae of building steps and retaining walls with obviously a good deal of paving and brickwork thrown in for good measure. Here I deal with steps. The first thing to bear in mind is finding a good landscape contractor who actually will follow your specifications and not go off piste. If you can’t oversee the build of your design you may as well wash your hands of it because the chances of the hard landscaping being built to your satisfaction are zero!
It is very important to have a good length of tread and a good riser that neither trips you because it is too shallow nor makes you stagger because of its height. I always mention the tray trick to my clients: garden steps seldom have any form of hand hold or bannister so the best way to be sure that steps “work” is to imagine carrying a small tray with glasses up or down them without feeling insecure about what your feet are doing. Generosity of steps is important. There are many situations where there is simply not enough space for generosity so the steps should at least have a good tread.
Here are some good proportions between riser and tread:
RISER (top to bottom) TREAD (back to front)
Any GOOD landscape contractor knows how to build steps but the you, as the garden designer, should discuss with the contractor that he has covered the following details: they should be standing on a well compacted 100mm min depth of type 1 hardcore, and with 150 mm well consolidated subgrade. The rise is likely to be 100ml brick on end and the paving stone step/tread should be sittng on a 25mm mortar bed.
And then it is important that the landscape contractor is guided by you on the actual materials…things can go horribly wrong if the wrong or inferior materials are used. OR alternatively if because of economy you are dealing with cheaper materials they should be handled well. The detail is very important.
Lighting can be inserted into the side retaining walls or into the step itself and steel, steel and glass or perspex sides can be incorporated for hand holding if necessary.
Steps can very often be a truly focal point of a small London garden and it is therefore important for the garden designer to get them right. Here are some particularly precipitous steps coming from street level into a tiny London garden. In order to make them safe to walk down (as you can see there is no hand hold) they have been made pretty generous despite coming into such a small space. They are also incredibly good looking!! Nothing like a bit of York stone coping to smarten up the effect. This is a fine example of how good materials make all the difference. Good workmanship and good product – this is optimum.
Here below is a picture of some badly built steps. The materials are not the greatest, grey Indian sandstone (and yet Indian sandstone can look very good) and the grouting is awful. You can also see that the stones have been cut incorrectly.
And here below is an example of a Indian sandstone being used well. It is not the best material; limes, Yorks and granites etc being smarter, stronger and better looking, but it is a cheaper material and if cut and built well can be very good looking. As usual it is all to do with the detail, finish and expertise of the builder.
Here below you can see what a difference the materials make. First of all this front step has been built by an expert but also you can see that the material, basalt, speaks for itself.
Incredible York stone below – nothing really beats it, but again the builder has done a brilliant job.
And below, once again using Indian sandstone, but looking pretty good because of good workmanship.
And below back to York; there’s no doubt about its quality.
But here below for simplicity, practicality AND economy Indian sandstone works so well.
So the moral of the story is to choose your materials well, within your budget of course, but make sure you have an excellent builder/contractor to put the steps together.