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What Height Should Handrail Be On Stairs?

When designing or building a staircase, we tend to focus on the big picture and overlook minor details such as the railing. Some don't realize that there is a building code to follow. That's why we're here to share what we have researched from the experts about the standard handrail height requirements.

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The International Residential Code (IRC) and International Building Code (IBC) specify a minimum of 34" and a maximum of 38" for stair railing height. It is measured from the stair nosing which is a diagonal line across the top of the stairs.

In this article, we'll go over the specifics of the regulations of staircases, provide answers to your other questions, and look at some stair railing ideas that will inspire your future projects. So continue reading! 

Wooden stairs and metal railing inside a blue walled living room, What Height Should Handrail Be On Stairs?

Stair Railing Guidelines

Staircase railings are addressed in the IRC and IBC. These are two model codes that can be used as suggested guidelines by local code authorities.

However, because communities frequently adopt and adapt the model code, you should also check with your local building code authority (usually the city building department) for code that applies to your neighborhood. Permits may be required for stair railing in both new and remodeled homes.

Staircase code is built on a foundation of sound principles, all of which revolve around the idea that gravity isn't our friend on stairs. As a result, the staircase code requires handrails on the incline sections.

It also goes into greater detail, stating how high or low they should be, as well as how far out they should project. In a nutshell, the handrail code is a type of building guide—a set of common-sense guidelines for constructing stairs.

Handrail Requirements

Home inspectors place a high value on stair railings. Handrails are required if there are four or more risers, according to the IRC. Other requirements for handrail are shown below:

Location

Stairs and ramps must have handrails on both sides. However, for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stair handrails, it can only be on one side.

Continuous 

The handrails must be continuous throughout the length of the stair. They can't come to a halt or break within the confines of the steps. All handrails must continue through the platforms, including inside handrails on L-shaped stairs or switchbacks and ramps.

Height

Distance from the gripping surfaces and the walking surface should be between 34" and 38". The handrail's height is measured from the top of the handrail to the edge of each nosing.

At any point along the path, the height of the handrails on ramps and platforms can be measured. A handrail's height should be consistent throughout the stair or ramp, including any platforms.

Grip Size

Mans hand holding the wooden handrail

The diameter of a circular handrail should be between 1.25" and 2". If the handrail isn't circular, the perimeter should be at least 4" and no more than 6.25". However, there should be graspable finger recesses on both sides of the handrail that are not circular and has a perimeter of more than 6.25".

Projection

Wooden stairs painted in white with wooden handrails and white banisters

Handrails must project no more than 4.5" from the wall.

Clearance

The distance between the handrail and the wall should be at least 1.5".

Obstruction

Handrail gripping surfaces should be as clear as possible. They can't have obstructions on their tops or sides, and more than 20% of the length of the bottoms should not be blocked.

This rule ensures that those who use the stairs have a firm grip on the handrails easily. Additionally, sharp or abrasive elements should be avoided on handrail gripping surfaces as well as any surfaces adjacent to them.

Extensions

For the top extension, handrails extend horizontally for at least 12" above the landing, starting directly above the top of the nosing of the first riser.

In terms of the bottom extension, handrails extend a horizontal distance the same as one tread depth above the top of the nosing of the last riser at the slope of the stair flight. Extensions are calculated using the area that can be gripped continuously.

No Rotation Within The Fittings

Handrails attached to fittings should be secure and should not rotate.

Other Requirements For Stairs

Stair Width 

Rustic living room with hardwood floors and a stair with wooden handrailing

Stairs should not be less than 36" wide above the handrail and below the ceiling. If there is only one handrail, the minimum width below it should be at least 31.5". If there are handrails on both sides, the rails should have a minimum width of 27" below the handrails.

Stair Tread Depth

Stair treads should be at least 10" long. There should be no more than a 3/8" difference between the longest and shortest treads.

Stair Riser Height

The maximum height of the riser should be 7 3/4" (4" minimum). There should be no more than a 3/8" difference in height between the tallest and shortest risers. 

However, if the stairwell has open risers, a sphere with a diameter of 4" should not be able to pass through anywhere above 30" from the floor. If there are no risers, a child's head should not be able to pass through any point higher than 30" from the ground.

Stair Headroom

The space required from the stairwell to the ceiling is known as headroom. Basically, this rule prevents people from hitting their heads on the stairwell.

Headroom should be at least 6' 8" from the bottom of the stairs to the top. The imaginary diagonal slope atop the stair risers or nosings is used to calculate this value. This rule applies to landings as well, as measured from any point on the landing to the ceiling.

Nosing

The stair nosing is the part of the tread that protrudes past the riser. The edge of most stair nosings is circular or beveled. The IRC specifies that the nosing has a minimum depth of 3/4" and a maximum depth of 1 1/4".

Stair Landing

At the top and bottom of the stairs, landings are required. One reason is that if you fall down the stairs, you will only fall a certain distance before hitting the landing.

Landings also make turning onto a different level or stair direction easier. The landing's width cannot be less than the width of the stairs. In addition, the horizontal slope of landings should not exceed a 2% slope gradient.

Common Violations Of Residential Stair Codes

Interior of a gorgeous modern house with wooden flooring, white painted walls and stairs with metal handrails

4" Sphere

A guardrail must be installed anywhere above 30" from the ground to prevent a dangerous fall for an adult or child. There is a rule known as the 4" sphere rule in the home inspection world (and the IRC).

Essentially, a 4" sphere should not be able to pass through the handrail. The 4" sphere is about the size of a small child's head. If the child's head fits through, the rest of their body will as well.

Loose Railings

Most indoor stair handrails have a little give or are visibly loose from people leaning on the railing over time.

Missing Railings

A stairwell can be missing a handrail, and always remember you can possibly fall more than 30 inches, which is why there should be a guardrail.

Missing Lighting

For obvious reasons, stairwells should always be illuminated. If you are constantly going up and down stairs without lights, you will fall sooner or later. A 3-way switch should always be installed at the top and bottom of stairs with more than 6 risers.

Stair Railing Ideas

Choosing the right railing or handrail for your area is a big decision that can change the way your house feels. There are several stair railing options, ranging from wrought iron balusters to glass panels.

The following photos will provide you with ideas and inspiration to assist you in selecting the appropriate staircase material.

White Steel Railing

One of the most eye-catching architectural details in the house is the geometric stair railing that's made of welded steel and coated with white which is also the same color as the trim throughout the house.

Black Stair Railing

Black railing always blends with the white walls, especially with their clean angles and lines.

Industrial Railing

Railings are wonderful structures that run along stairwells, decks, and other places to provide support while descending or ascending. Although they were originally created for safety, they now come in a variety of styles ranging from simple and rustic to elaborate and refined.

Wood Railing

Wood railing is a great option for a natural look that is both beautiful and affordable. Because wood railing is versatile, it can be combined with a variety of other railing products such as iron panels or cable rail.

Wire Railing

Traditional metal or wood railings can be replaced with cable railing. When combined with wood, it's also the key to a hybrid custom style. In a nutshell, these are horizontal cable hand/guard rails rather than mesh, wood, glass, or spindles.

Glass Railing

The glass railing creates a stunning visual impact, adds openness, expands the space, and allows light to flow freely. It enhances a home's luxurious feel and value.

Final Thoughts

Wooden stairs and metal railing inside a blue walled living room

So what is the ideal height for a handrail? It should be between 34" and 38" high in general. However, before purchasing materials or constructing an exterior stair railing, make sure you have the most up-to-date code information from your local building code.

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