Handrails: Where and Why You Need them in a Home
In spite of being in the construction business for over two decades, we still marvel at the splendor of newly completed home or remodel. We find ourselves like a couple of kids admiring a just completed model car. The more things change, the more the stay the same.
Handsome doors, finely crafted cabinets and trim, bright fixtures and meticulously installed finishes are just some of the many elements of construction, the satisfaction for which fuels a builder’s lifeblood and motivates him to “take on” yet another project – present company included.
Often it is hard to conceive of the fact that the origin of a fabulous creation was a mere plot of land, or, in the case of a remodel, a less desirable structure or arrangement of space. Remodeling projects are particularly satisfying for us because of the dramatic transformation that occurs.
While, as builders, we would like to take full credit for a fabulous end result, doing so would be less than ethical and not a true representation of what really occurs. Allow us to explain.
When it comes to building, before the first board is sawed or the first nail is driven, there is (hopefully) a plan or “blueprint” which outlines, in great detail, what work is to be performed. Moreover, the plan is the universal communication device that ALL parties rely upon. A project without a plan is asking for chaos.
An architect, designer, space planner, engineer, contractor or even the homeowner can create the plan. However, regardless of who creates the plan, its elements should always comply with the building code. While many look upon the building code and/or building officials as “Big Brother” or government bureaucracy, these codes are designed to protect you, your family, your neighborhood, and your community from injury and structural failure. And while nothing is more important than life and limb, protecting the integrity of a home can be an especially good thing since it is for most people the biggest lifetime investment.
Thus, we believe that the building code should be looked upon as a safety valve. It ensures that a project meets minimum structural requirements and that the building products and materials used are safe and don’t expose the occupants to potentially hazardous conditions. Of equal importance is the requirement that all electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilation elements of a project be safe.
So, the sequence of construction events is as follows. A project usually begins with an idea (dream). The idea is then put to paper via conceptual drawings. The drawings go through several (sometimes endless) refinement and revisions. Where applicable, the finished plans are then sent to an engineer to ensure that all structural aspects are properly designed. With necessary corrections, the engineered plans are then submitted to the local building department for permit and design review. Provided the plans comply with local planning requirements, they are approved for construction (often with conditions or “red marks” that must be adhered to) and the necessary permits are issued. It is then, and only then, that the digging, sawing and hammering can begin.
Although the building code can be complex and difficult to understand in some areas, it is quite simple to comprehend in others. Take the installation of a handrail, for example. A handrail isn’t particularly important when you are ten years old and race up and down stairs — skipping two or three at a time. However, as we grow older or for those who are infirm, a good, solid handrail can (literally) be a lifesaver. Thus, the building code addresses handrail installation.
Stairways with walls on either side need handrails attached to one or both walls. There are several factors that determine the required configuration — the number or risers, the width of the stairs and the use of the building (commercial, residential, etc.).
For single-family homes, a handrail is required on one side of a set of stairs. However, if the stairs consist of three risers or less, no handrail is required. What’s more, the handrail should be 1 ¼ to 2 inches in diameter, have at least a 1 ½ inch space between the handrail and the adjacent wall and should not project out more than 3 ½ inches from the stair wall. There’s more.
Although there are some exceptions, the handrail must be continuous for the full length of the stair run and the ends must curve into the wall so as not to catch a sleeve. In addition, the handrail must be located at least 34 inches but not more than 38 inches above the tread nosing. The tread is the surface that you walk on; the riser is the vertical panel between each tread.
Just as a home is only as good as the foundation that it rests upon, a handrail is only as good as the anchors that support it. Thus, a handrail should be securely fastened to wall studs or other structurally sound support (such as solid backing) with approved brackets. The brackets should be no more than 48” apart and the handrail should not extend more than 24” beyond the end of a bracket.
You see, building codes are important for something that is as seemingly insignificant as a handrail. A visit to your local building department or library for a look at the building code is a great (and necessary) way to begin your next project.