Masonry project problem -- is the proposed solution ok?
October 25, 2014 4:56 AM   Subscribe

Adding granite toppers on our exterior stairway made the step heights hazardously uneven. Is the plan for addressing it ok?

We have a long, exterior staircase that was concrete, and it needed repair. After consulting with two masons, we went forward with one of them, veneering the rises with stone and putting on granite tops. The project is underway, with the mason returning this morning. The thickness of the granite tops adds ~2" to the height of each stair. This means that the last step down to the original concrete landing is now 2" taller than the rest, which feels hazardous when walking down. The mason proposes to add a small concrete ramp on top of the existing concrete landing. While he acknowledges that concrete on concrete doesn't always last, he doesn't have a good alternative, and thinks it's worth a try.

The reverse problem will exist at the top (not yet topped with granite). The stairway joins a concrete walkway that itself has a couple of concrete steps we intend to leave alone. Once added, the granite topper on the last step before the concrete will make the very last step, onto the concrete, 2" shorter than the rest. We haven't discussed how to address that yet. The last step's top is also about double the surface of the other tops (also due to the veneering process, which added onto the fronts of all the steps). The mason was going to even that up by adding to the concrete step, extending it forward. If we don't do that, and leave the last step with the extra surface, would that be super weird? I was thinking that the change in rhythm might be enough of a cue that the 2" lower height wouldn't be a hazard - what do you think? Extending the job to the concrete walkway would be expensive, so I can bear a little lack of refinement instead, but not a hazard.

If those solutions aren't reasonable, is there anything we can do that won't add mega-dollars to the job? Since the mason thinks his ramp solution is reasonable, if we want to do anything more extensive than that, should we expect to pay? Or should the mason have anticipated these issues in his bid? If the latter, how can we convince him to do something more extensive than his ramp idea, on his own dime?
posted by daisyace to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes, this is something that your mason should have anticipated, and I agree that the extra 2 inches at the bottom is a problem.

I also think the ramp idea is not too great. Had you contacted me for a consult, I would have suggested doing a veneer on the walkway, thereby raising that to a proper level, and also to look better overall.

Regarding the top, I don't think I'm understanding your explanation. Can you expound a bit more? Are you calling the top the step with the existing veneer, or the pad that holds the stair-rail?

At any rate, I think your mason needs to make some concessions and do the right thing, since it was his error in calculations that have resulted in this issue.
posted by PlantGoddess at 6:16 AM on October 25, 2014

It is unbelievable that your mason didn't realize that this would be such an issue. Normally, stair risers need to be the same with about 1/6" tolerance; otherwise they become difficult and dangerous to walk on (because we as humans are very sensitive to heights we're walking along).

I'd suggest a similar piece of granite at the bottom and then ramp concrete up to it, so that when you walk down onto the bottom landing you're stepping onto a piece of that same granite. I'd even consider doing granite on that entire bottom landing, but then that 2" difference shows up near the sidewalk...

I have no idea how you are going to be able to fix things at the top of the staircase.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 6:27 AM on October 25, 2014

PlantGoddess -- I see that I was ambiguous. For clarity, let's call the step that's all concrete now "the pad," and the one below that "the top step." The top step will soon get its 2" granite topper. That will decrease the riser to the pad, making it a little more than 2" shorter than the other risers.

BillMcMurdo -- Wow, 1/6", I had no idea. I think these steps have always been less even than that, but with the obvious age and roughness of the stone walls and stairs, you're naturally more conscious when walking up them than, say, a stairway in a modern building. So, they didn't feel hazardous despite their variations before, but 2" of variation is very obviously too much.
posted by daisyace at 7:03 AM on October 25, 2014

Oh, and PlantGoddess, using those terms, the top step's surface is about double the surface of the other steps. We were going to make the top step's surface the same as the others by adding concrete to extend the pad forward. I'm wondering if leaving the top step with an oddball long surface would be too weird, and if not, if that would be enough of a cue to prevent stumbling due to the short riser to the pad.
posted by daisyace at 7:24 AM on October 25, 2014

Thanks for the follow-up daisyace. Were it me, I think I would leave the top step as is(adding the veneer) -and not try to extend the pad. In essence you would have two 'landing' type areas, and I think that would be much better to signal that 'something is different' and one should adjust ones pace accordingly.

FWIW, I still think the mason needs to suck it up and do a granite veneer on the walkway :) His mistake, his problem to fix to the satisfaction of the client...
posted by PlantGoddess at 7:47 AM on October 25, 2014

There are ways to make concrete on concrete more likely to last: you first need to bush the surface of the existing concrete with a demolition gun (essentially roughen it by chipping it). I'd also add some short vertical rebar dowels - at least four, one in each corner - by rotohammering holes into the pad and epoxying short pieces of rebar that stick up into the new concrete to be poured, forming a connection between the old concrete and the new. That's in addition to any reinforcement that the new pad might require.
posted by halogen at 9:23 AM on October 25, 2014

Correcting my previous comment, looks like I was incorrect about the variation in riser height, for anyone coming back to visit this. These numbers are probably for interior steps, and are for the US - OSHA says no more than 1/4" difference in riser height from one to the next, and other codes specify no more than a 3/8" difference between smallest and largest riser heights in an entire run of stairs. I expect I was mixing up 1/6" with 6mm (about 1/4"). Not sure what the specs are for outdoors, but I'd think taking those numbers as something to shoot for would be good.

In any case, yes, a 2" difference from one riser to the next is too much. It's really uncomfortable when stairs do that, and can be very dangerous for elderly folks and for people with vision issues.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 9:44 AM on October 25, 2014

Just want to say, you're not being too fussy. He should fix it. I had a family member break a leg falling, due to uneven exterior stair risers (which was a result of this same issue -- the contractor screwed up and the homeowner decided to just live with it instead of insisting the stairs be made equal). Trust your instincts on this. If you're walking down the stairs and your legs hesitate or get confused, take it seriously. Especially at the top, where you have a longer way to fall! Uneven risers are dangerous, period.

Also, be sure there's a solid handrail, especially any place you leave unevenness.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:37 AM on October 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the rapid responses, everyone. We have tentative solutions decided upon with the mason. If you have any additional thoughts about how these sound, I'd love to hear them.

For the bottom, he's going to make a 2" high platform on top of the concrete, using the fieldstone that's on the step faces. It will extend out almost 2 feet, but instead of a simple rectangle, the front edge will be an arch. He'll also slope the platform slightly towards the edges, and bevel down from there to the existing concrete. He'll choose stones that are as smooth as possible for snow shoveling.

For the top, he will still extend the concrete pad forward to give the step before it the same surface size as all the others, but he will also build the entire ~4'x4' concrete pad 2" up. He'll also cheat a tiny bit of extra height from each of the two steps before that. That will make the next step to the left, where the walkway starts, about 4" high. The hope is that 4" is short enough that it won't seem like an erroneously short step, but like a different beast. I think the left turn and the change in material will help there, too.

I'll add pictures of the results to the album above in a few days. Thanks again.
posted by daisyace at 12:52 PM on October 25, 2014

Well, the long delay was because it took him two tries to build up the top as planned, and with some weather and other delays, he finally got it done yesterday. I've added three new photos to the album.

The bottom looks pretty darn amateurish, but it's an aesthetic issue now, not a safety one, so I'll live with it. I'm hoping it's more glaring to me than it really is in the overall impression from the curb, in the context of walls that are certainly no better.

Thanks everyone for the help. It wasn't the smoothest of jobs, so I really appreciate the consulting! Next time, I'm seeing completed work in person and calling references before trying a new contractor for something this major.
posted by daisyace at 7:49 AM on November 26, 2014

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