Why Dutch stairs are so steep

Dutch houses

I flew to The Netherlands yesterday to do a space clearing consultation and, as always, was struck by how flat the country is. But something I had not realized on any of my previous visits is how extraordinarily tall many of their houses are, as if to compensate for the flatness of the terrain. And not only that, but how impossibly steep their staircases are, in a land where hills are almost unknown.

When I say “steep”, I mean so perilously vertical that they would contravene building regulations in most other countries. To safely ascend requires climbing on all fours with the additional help of teeth and fingernails, but this is nothing compared to the precision and trust in almighty forces of benevolence that are required to navigate a descent. The triangular shaped steps in many properties are only wide enough to place your feet sideways, and the slightest loss in concentration can lead to an unforgettable experience of gravitational laws.

Dutch stairsApparently the reason for these terrifying structures is that most properties in the Netherlands are built on soft sandy soil, requiring massive load-bearing stakes called piles to be driven into the earth to support them. Houses are also usually built in a row, which helps them keep each other upright. Centuries ago, when folk used to do their own construction, some skimped on how deep their piles were sunk, which caused not only their own house to lean but sometimes adjacent buildings too. This led to so many problems that eventually the government took over the installation of piles, and introduced a tax to cover the cost, based on the width of the house that was built. Hence the vast number of narrow, tall, long houses in the Netherlands. They may have reasonable sized rooms but no space at all for a decent staircase.

How this enterprising method of tax avoidance ever caught on in a country that is best known for wearing slip-on wooden shoes, I will never know. These staircases are challenging enough in bare feet, positively suicidal in socks, and almost beyond the bounds of possibility in clogs.

Remarkably, even though this tax was abolished long ago, the Dutch have become so used to their daily death-defying climbs that many modern homes are still built in this style, with special external winches to lift heavy furniture in and out. So well have they mastered stair-climbing arts, in fact, that they are ranked only seventh in the world in stair-fall statistics, but I’m told that just about everyone bears the emotional or physical scars of having taken a tumble at some time or other, with senior citizens most at risk, and children under the age of five having the highest rates of head injuries.

So the Dutch most certainly don’t have mountains, but the twists and turns of their architectural history means they are no strangers to vertical ascents. What a curious world we live in.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2013

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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16 Responses to Why Dutch stairs are so steep

  1. So is ours, not only steep, but a spiral one as well and well worn. So when i was ill and went downstairs, i slipped on my bare feet and bumped on my bum down the stairs and had only one little bruise!

  2. in a country where there’s flooding I would want something steep to climb when the waters start rising.

  3. Indeed, most staircases are steep. So is ours, not only steep, but a spiral one as well and well worn. So when i was ill and went downstairs, i slipped on my bare feet and bumped on my bum down the stairs and had only one little bruise! Thanks to my firm dutch behind 🙂

  4. I totally agree!! I lived there for 12 years and especially in the early days, I found certain staircases terrifying. Rather more used to it now, but it took a while. Visiting me at a friends place, my mother found this even more scary as she was scared of heights. Vertigo at the top of the stairs is not fun!

    Each country has their strange and hilarious history. Another funny Dutch one is their hilariously small toilets, best known for knees against the door posture. Try reading The UnDutchables, it’s very funny.

  5. I went to high school in a town that is very proud of its Dutch heritage (Pella, Iowa). One of my first jobs was as a bus person at a formal restaurant that had three staircases like the one you speak of in this article – one was particularly steep and treacherous… the top end of this floor was where I seemed to get placed most frequently, and carrying tubs full of dishes down those stairs took a LOT of concentration. One of my coworkers would put both of his lower legs up on the railings and just slide down with dishes on his lap (only allowed after all the customers were gone though!). Thanks for the history lesson, I didn’t know why the stairs were like that!

  6. This is a most charming – as well as accurate – story about Dutch stairs!
    A little addition: yes, you are completely right, the stairs are not attempted in clogs. Clogs are only worn outside the house – in the countryside by farmers and in the gardens.

  7. One of the signs of aging (and I don’t mean becoming old and frail, just growing older) I have noticed is a greater concern about falling. Whilst my daughters skate across icey roads I hold onto the railing and consider the purchase of those ice grips. We have just come back from Turkey and I noticed that the public steps in the hillside villages were vertiginous. The girls skipped down at high speed and I sent up a silent prayer of thanks for the occasional handrail!

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