Design Solutions: Steps

A Technical Approach

Design examples and process

The following aspects are vital when informing our design approach, considerations and final decision when implementing this element within a project. They include:

  • Construction
  • Style and Material choices
  • Maintenance and Durability
  • Safety
  • Size of the Garden, Functionality and Accessibility
  • Budget

There are two main types of steps:
Cut-in Steps:Used when negotiating a slope or bank. The shape of steps are cut out into the existing soil.
Freestanding Steps:Used between terrace-like level changes and usually at angles or parallel to the retaining walls.

Stepping out in Style:
The style selected will take into consideration the following that will best suit the overall design:

  • Formal: rectangular and linear
  • Informal: Curving
  • Recessed and Indented
  • Semi-circular
  • Mixed materials

Material Choices, Maintenance and Durability

Depending on the aesthetic and ‘feel’ of the design, materials present in the existing space and the surrounding areas will inform the selection process. A range of materials are taken into consideration as well as the practicalities of maintenance and durability. The best options will be recommended to you. These materials may include:

Natural Stone:Granite, sandstone, limestone and slate.
Can be finished in a variety of ways: honed, bush hammered, sawn, sand blasted, polished, flame textured, acid washed, saw cut refined, split faced, tumbled and brushed which will further suit the desired design aesthetic and approach.Look to your local area what is the predominant stone and can it be sourced locally?

Metals: Corten steel, zinc, stainless steel
Finishes vary depending on their coatings, metal coatings, mechanical or chemical treatments, laser cut, design motifs and decorative finishes.

Timber: Sustainable sources are best recommended and can range from Larch to Cedar wood. Treatment and maintenance options will include a wood stain, paint or varnished final product.

Bricks: Granite, sandstone, limestone, slate, redbrick, reclaimed brick. Consider locally sourcing bricks or salvaged bricks.

Concrete: Precast concrete, mixed on site concrete for ease of manipulation depending on the design requirements.Variety of finishes include: stamped, brushed, salt, exposed aggregate, stencilled.


Depending on the functionality and intention of the steps there may be requirement to incorporate safety elements such as railings or balustrades to prevent falling. Similarly, the surface of the tread to prevent slippage in various weathers. ‘Landing zones’ may need including particularly if navigating a steep slope. Further thought will be taken into account on how to utilise retaining walls and raised planters providing safety buffers in a more aesthetically pleasing and functional manner.

Size of the Garden, Accessibility and Best Use of Space

Our experience of working in a variety of spaces ensure that within the design studio we know how utilise and provide the best possible routes, layouts and use of space ensuring that functionality and usability are not compromised.

Design Example  1: The San Elmo Project

In 2023, a recently completed house renovation taking in the stunning views over Dalky island, required design thought as to how best to approach and address the steep and sloped gardens that wrapped around the house. The new building demonstrated strong lines, large rectangular features and symmetry and it made design sense to reflect this approach in the transitional step design.

The steps would need to enhance the whole experience of the garden by becoming features in themselves and by their design dictating the speed of movement in the garden. The width and size of the steps was increased to a generous 1m landing space allowing for a more mindful and leisurely pace through the level changes. Concrete was also selected as the material not only to present a modern look, but because it could be shaped easily to form the required size of step, as well as lending itself to creating the overlapping size of step that we were looking for.

Our approach continued by taking advantage of the existing slope to create and build ‘cut in steps’ using the ground itself as a foundation and a back riser thus significantly reducing the potential volume of materials and costs incurred that would be needed to create and build free standing steps. In addition, other steps styles would have required additional safety measures such as rails and supports threatening to detract from the sleek and modern reflective approach intentionally set out upon.

The combination of utilising the existing slopes at a much lower level and the introduction of large square steps at slight offsets from each other meets the desire to move around the perimeter gently and allowed the opportunity to give the illusion of ‘floating’ above the existing grass slopes and intentional slow movement down through each space. Cast from concrete with clear defined and robust edges, the brush stone finish when hit with natural light produces pleasing effects and nice contrast with the green grass alongside. A strong and welcome contrast between hard and soft materials!

From differing viewpoints the geometric lines of the steps stand out from amongst the soft presence of planting, an additional feature to be appreciated tying the different areas of the garden together.

Design Example 2: Dunmore East

In 2020, a family project wished to preserve the views from the rear of the house out towards the striking views of the sea and lighthouse. A list of requirements ensuring the new patio incorporated a variety of spaces such as an opening entertaining area, fire pit, chilling zone for the teenagers and a sizeable bbq zone all without compromising the views from within the house. All achieveable with a subtle change and variety in levels that would appear seamless and transitition from one to the other with ease and take into the account the gently sloping down garden out towards the sea. The design of steps would be paramount!

The modern and sleek house with predominant white stone wash and a slate blue and grey finish made it quite apparent in our materials selected and the finishes presenting a smooth transition from inside to outside and through the newly create spaces. Kilkenny limestone was sourced and provided the basis of our paving and connecting all the areas seamlessy together.

Set aside the challenges of the collective lockdowns, the process involved examining all viewpoints, trying out varying levels to arrive at what would work best for the overall space. The design succesfully took shape and there would be five key areas utilising steps to subtly transition between the zones without compromising the views from within. Maintaining rectangular and linear shapes a series of block work raised planters, raised walls, sunken areas and strips of planting zones evolved demarcating the spaces.

A higher volume of materials were required as the clients previous decking of timber had not lasted the challenges of the wild, wet and woolly conditions of the coast. A more robust and long lasting solution was a key requirement as well as retaining the overall aesthetic and ambience when approaching the build.

The kitchen area opened out on to the main open entertaining area with unobstructed views the sunken fire pit area would be integrated using a generous and wide corner set of steps bring the user down below the level of the house. The area would be cosy and inviting with benches and the comfort of the sheltered raised beds to the rear providing relief from the winds. The wide steps were welcoming and provided a neat counter-balance to the raised planters that formed the other three sides of this area.

From the main patio level a transition down into the main garden saw the shape of the corner steps inverted and the width of the steps made much wider.  This gives the grand stepped link to the rest of the garden below and views beyond so the scale of these steps had to be suitable (think grand houses).

A further challenge for this design that had to be teased through was to ensure that views from the master bedroom were not compromised. To achieve this the BBQ area was lowered down by a considerable 1.35m. Framed and sheltered by raised walls and planters and screened from views of the neighbours, another cosy and interactive area was created. A main set of steps safely and securely brings one down from the main patio in between two planters.  These steps are functional so the tread is narrower therefore optimising the avilable space.  Some additional steps provide a link back up to the main garden level with a connection to an adjoining teenage ‘hang out’ zone maintained as well as enabloing views out to the garden from the BBQ seating.

On completion and successful installation of planting and finishing personal touches by our wonderful clients a successful design and myriad of transitions between levels and areas was achieved with the considered use of step design taking all factors into account.


Design Example 3: The Monkstown project

A smaller and more urban courtyard garden required smooth transitions for the clients from the rear kitchen down through the levels with ease whilst ensuring that the space was still useable and not compromised with each transition. The existing aesthetic of natural granite stone wall facing was taken into consideration and it was felt that a contrasting smoother and lighter material, Egyptian Limestone pavers; would provide the necessary balance and harmony needed for the surfacing and steps. The nose of the step was extended to overhang for water egress but this also created the perfect location for a single strip of LED lighting throwing a luscious, warm and illuminating glow across the surfaces.

By integrating an L-shape for the steps from the French doors, the seemingly small space is opened up, demarcated with a raised planter and further allowing space for a smooth and safe transition in two different directions. The strips of LED lights glow and highlight the choices and options of direction. A gentle meander to the side seating area or a more direct descent into the lower landing level, a resting point where the user is rewarded with a more direct view of the water feature. Narrower and more direct steps just as luscious and warm as their L-shaped counter parts are framed with a stylish railing presenting itself across the landing level suiting the final transition to the rear of the garden to its final patio seating area.

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