Matt Cantwell: Step it up

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I love steps. Steps come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They can go up, they can go down. They can zig zag or be quite direct. If designed well they can make changing levels a breeze and become a highlight of any garden design.

Level changes can be subtle, they can be drastic and everything in between. They may occur in front of a building, at the sides or across the rear garden. Steps if designed well can be the star of the show, the focal point, the sculptural element.

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Designing steps for the garden can be quite different to what would be designed inside a building. Moving from floor to floor internally is usually steep and direct. The risers are their maximum permissible height and the treads often the minimum depth. These same design dynamics are employed in particularly steep gardens or at least along part of the ascent or descent. Sometimes though the level changes are simpler and this provides for wonderful design opportunities.

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Steps where possible in a garden need to be generous and gentle. By that I mean wide enough to feel comfortable, the treads deep and the risers low. If there are large level changes then the steps need to be broken up by landings. If space permits, these landings can be extended, thereby separating the step configurations. This performs two functions. Firstly to break the journey up, by softening the journey and helping the user overlook the sometimes arduous task of climbing stairs. Secondly it encourages interaction with the garden. It creates pause, an opportunity to take in a strategically placed sculpture, feature planting or a view.

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Playing with step proportion and the right selection of materials to compliment are key. When the level change is great, the steps are more direct and on the narrower side, a staircase is often used, a classic approach.

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Timber here can be a more cost-effective solution and lighter in appearance, even affording a view though to planting underneath. The addition of steel components to the staircase design here add a sharper, more modern feel.

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When in no particular hurry, and enjoying the surrounds is the priority, a set of stone steps, curving through a lush understory planting can be a discrete connection between two zones within a rambling garden.

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My favourite steps though are the more sculptural ones, the ones that make a statement. If I was approaching the front door to a house or a large entertaining area then I will usually try to push for maximum width, staggering these widths and pulling the occasional treads through into low-level planting that brushes against them.  The best material to use here is concrete. I love the look of concrete, it is uncomplicated, the detail of tiles or pavers doesn’t interfere with the lines, in my eyes it is the most natural looking material that man makes.

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There is a real art to addressing level changes. Confident designers will create level changes simply to introduce steps. But it’s all about proportions and the right materials.