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Regional contractors know concrete steps make the grade

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The stamped concrete steps at Randy Smith's house in Valencia Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The stamped concrete steps at Randy Smith's house in Valencia Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The stamped concrete steps at Randy Smith's house in Valencia Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.

Putting the finishing touches on a residential concrete job often means climbing a tough set of steps.

“In almost all of the jobs we do, we spend the most time dealing with steps,” says Pete Morelli from Concrete by Bruno in Gibsonia.

Harry Spadafora from 3 Rivers Custom Concrete in McKees Rocks says “you have to be the neatest and the crispest” in dealing with steps.

Steps, by definition, seem to be a simple matter. They provide a nicely defined and predictable manner of ascending or descending a grade.

But deciding on the number, size and where they are can present matters of judgment that might be overlooked by those not involved in concrete.

For instance, on a recent job in Glenshaw, Spadafora eliminated a step from a patio-like area in the front of a home and replaced it with a graded section of walkway leading from it. It allowed him to change the elevation of the patio a bit so that water would run away from the house.

Similarly, Brian Aiken from Aiken Concrete Construction in Valencia, Butler County, redid a home in that community, changing where the steps were.

Randy Smith, owner of the property, says the old layout had “a walk and then a step, a walk and then a step.”

Aiken changed it to one flight of steps going up to a walk uninterrupted by steps.

“There was a notch cut in the yard for no good reason,” he says, noting the design created an awkward grade that Aiken felt compelled to change.

Getting the job done can require moving a step at a time.

Dealing with the change

Right off the bat, steps indicate an issue to be handled: a change in elevation.

Ryan Longeway of Asturi Contracting in Monroeville says the installer/contractor must determine the change involved and the distance covered. If the project is a matter of replacement more than creation, a major change in the steps probably will not happen, he says, because that move also could involve creating changes in the walkway.

How those steps handle the height is the issue to handle.

“The end is defined by the run,” he says, the latter term referring to the width of one step leading to the next.

Some concrete craftsmen prefer to create fewer steps by making the run wider, creating the “step-and-a-skip, step-and-a-skip” effect, which Longeway thinks is awkward.

Spadafora says some projects demand changes to meet codes. In the Glenshaw job, he turned a three-step flight, which had been built nearly 50 years ago, into one with four. That move created more uniform steps, he says, and also had them meet code.

Morelli agrees, saying grade, size and even possible turns can create difficult matters.

“But I try to keep the tread the same size,” he says.

The biggest issue is “determining the lay of the land,” Aiken says.

Making the ideas stand up

Once all the issues are determined, the best way to handle them is the next decision.

“Framing steps is easily the toughest part of the job,” Longeway says.

Most contractors use pre-cut, wooden frames for the sides that help to create a mold into which the concrete can be poured. The frames often must be tweaked to meet the distance and height involved, Aiken says.

Naturally, that move toward standardization does not always work because of specific aspects of the site, Aiken and Longeway add.

Pre-cast, concrete steps offer another option, but some contractors do not like them. Longeway says they have “no design element” and, therefore, don't fit most projects.

Aiken agrees, saying pre-cast steps are more suited for commercial sites or for projects involving stairs running from a porch.

But Virgil Knox, owner of Hampton Concrete Products from Butler County, says his company does more residential than commercial business with its steps. He says they make 120 sizes so that they can fit into many projects.

The steps are reinforced by steel rods and can speed up a project, he says. Because concrete installers have to measure the site, form it, pour the concrete and the come back the next day to finish it, Knox says steps often demand two to three days of work. Pre-cast ones can be dropped into place, cutting some of that work.

Prices vary according to size and height of risers, but start at $137 for one, 3-foot-wide step.

The company also makes such things as concrete entrances to basements and catch basins.

Morelli and Aiken agree that dealing with the issues of steps puts demands on the design talents of contractors as well as their ability to explain changes to clients.

Most times, Aiken says, they are willing to accept what has been done.

Smith says he found the changes to his front walk “a little hard to deal with at first, but now I really like it.”

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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