Building Landscape Steps for Easy Access Outdoors

Insider Information From a Pro

Stone steps climbing a slope.
David Beaulieu

Homeowners who live on inclines may wish to consider building landscape steps to make it easier to get around outdoors. Learn what materials to use in the project, whether this is a suitable project for the do-it-yourselfer, and other tips in this interview with David Gatti, owner of P.O.P.S. Landscaping in Atlanta.

Q. David, what materials are most often used when building outdoor steps and stairways? How would a homeowner decide between the different materials available for landscape steps?

A. I would say 90% of all outdoor steps and stairways I design are made from stone. Homeowners might select from flagstone, field stone, stack stone, pavers, and timber. The main factor homeowners consider when deciding between materials is definitely budget.

Q. Can you offer some examples of how different building materials have been combined creatively in step projects?

A. Using pavers and stone together is one example. I like using pavers for walkways and stone for outdoor steps to soften the landscape and break up straight lines. When combining the two, I try to build a few outdoor steps, then add flat walkway space, and then add a few additional steps. This creates a warmer, more inviting walk space than a steep outdoor stairway.

Q. What about building railings to parallel the outdoor steps in your landscaping?

A. I do not typically install railings outdoors because we build our steps an average of 16 inches in depth, so a person can rotate 360 degrees without trouble. Railings are often placed inside because indoor steps are typically only about 8 inches wide. However, if a homeowner really wants a railing, a custom iron railing often suits an outdoor staircase well. I recommend putting the railing in the center of the steps instead of on each side because outdoor stairs often turn, and this can be tricky. A pressure-treated-wood post such as cedar can also make a nice split rail material. Place a vertical rail of cedar on the top and bottom and insert hand rails about 36 inches high.

Q. How do concrete steps and decorative stone steps compare regarding costs, design, durability, etc.? Let's focus on the more formal type of concrete steps (as opposed to, say, making precast concrete stepping stones).

A. Concrete steps cost about $300 per step to be installed as opposed to $150 for a stone step. While concrete as a material may be cheaper than stone, it's much harder and more time consuming to install. On average, it takes about two full days to lay concrete steps but only half a day for stone stairs. The prep and installation of concrete is also much more meticulous because there is more room for error.

I also tend to prefer stone over concrete steps because of the aesthetics and durability. Stone is more durable, as concrete tends to crack unless laid perfectly, and it's available in more shapes and colors than concrete. So, especially when considering a DIY project, I recommend stone for outdoor steps. Stones and pavers can also be replaced if needed, while concrete steps would need to be re-poured. If a homeowner is looking to install a more formal outdoor stairway, then I recommend pavers because they are much stronger than mixed concrete at 9500 PSI.

Q. How far down do you have to excavate to lay the groundwork for concrete steps?

A. Excavation to lay the ground work for concrete steps should go at least 6 to 8 inches. If you live in colder weather, you'll need to dig around 18 to 20 inches.

Q. Give us a brief orientation in terms of initiating the installation. For example, would you begin work at the bottom or the top of the eventual flight of concrete steps?

A. Homeowners should use 1x6 or 1x8 pieces of pine to create rectangular boxes 16 inches deep and 4 feet wide. Leave the back side open. Use a sledge-hammer to drive each box horizontally into the ground where you want each step. Stake each side of the boxes to keep them in place and screw the stakes from the inside out. Add rebar for each concrete step for added support. You will then use a continuous pour for even concrete. A pump truck is helpful for this type of project because using a wheelbarrow can be difficult and timing is essential.

Work from the bottom toward the top, and use a trowel to smooth the tops of the concrete steps as you go. Then you’ll need to remove the wood boxes. Timing is essential for this part, as you want to wait until the concrete is dry enough to keep its form but wet enough for the wood to move and the concrete to be smoothed on the edges. A good test for this would be the finger test. Touch it; if your finger sinks right in, it’s too soft. Wait until your finger leaves a 1/8 inch imprint, but that’s it. The whole project will take, on average, two full days. Due to the intensive nature of this type of work, it's best left to the pros.

Q. What material makes the best sub-layer for concrete steps?

A. I recommend using crush and run materials. They should be placed 6 inches below the step line. If you live in northern climates where you reach below freezing throughout the winter, you'll need to add a 12-inch sub base below that, making it an 18-inch base total. This is because freezing can cause a heaving factor, where aggregate can move with heat and water after a hard freeze. In the 12 inches below the crush and run materials, add surge stone which is about the size of a large egg. This prevents moisture from pushing up on the product.

Q. What's the drying time before you'll be able to walk on the concrete steps?

A. Depending on the weather, usually 24 hours.

Q. What other factors should be considered before building concrete steps, especially in terms of erosion prevention?

A. The condition of the soil is a determining factor. Sandy or moist soil will give, breaking the base of the concrete steps. Here in Georgia, we have red clay, so this is not an issue. Soil types in each state may vary. So checking with a local landscaper is suggested.

Q. Do you recommend pouring stringers for concrete steps? 

A. No, if you use stringers for concrete steps, you cannot achieve a consistent pour. I recommend making boxes. The stringers are less work, but, in the end, the boxes yield a more finished look that's well worth the extra time. With boxes, you're less likely to make mistakes. Each step in the process is critical, and a professional with experience in this area can streamline the project.

Q. For homeowners who decide that building concrete steps isn’t a DIY project, is there an estimated cost range homeowners should expect to pay a pro?

A. If a designer installs the concrete steps, homeowners should expect to pay $300 per step. I base this on an average project of 10 concrete steps for $3,000. In comparison, a stone step installation will only cost $150 per step because concrete steps are more intricate and require a higher number of team members to accomplish.

Final Thoughts

Homeowners with any significant slope on their land might want to consider having landscape steps installed. Like walkways, they become permanent fixtures that not only add beauty to the yard but also fill a practical need. They can lead you safely and more comfortably to a front entry, a storage shed, or a patio, for example. If well-made, they can increase the value of your real estate by adding usable space and creating a safer environment for homeowner and guest alike.