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Guardrails or Handrails?

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When putting in a staircase, building codes may require you to install a handrail or a guard, but what’s the difference? How do you know whether you need to install one, the other, or both?

Let’s start by tossing around some definitions.

What are guardrails?

“Guardrails” are railing systems that functions as “guards.” According to the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC), a guard is “a building component or a system of building components located near the open sides of elevated walking surfaces that minimizes the possibility of a fall from the walking surface to the lower level.” In summary, guards prevent people from falling off elevated surfaces. It’s important to note that while all guardrails are guards, not all guards are guardrails. Any building components that provide enough protection – including walls, partial-walls, benches, planter boxes, etc – count as guards.

What are handrails?

The 2009 IRC describes a handrail as “a horizontal or sloping rail intended for grasping by the hand for guidance or support.”

Comparing this definition to that of guards, a clear distinction emerges: guards (guardrails) are for protection, handrails are for support.

Since their purposes are different, guards and handrails have different requirements.

When to use what (and where):

In Section R312.1 of the 2009 IRC, guard requirements for stairs are specified: “Guards shall be located along open-sided walking surfaces, including stairs, ramps and landings, that are located more than 30 inches (762 mm) measured vertically to the floor or grade below at any point within 36 inches (914 mm) horizontally to the edge of the open side.”

Note that the guard requirements only care about height, not steps. Guards are meant to prevent potentially dangerous drops, which means the height (and consequential injury upon impact) of a hypothetical fall is what matters. Many builders ask how many steps you can have before a guardrail is required, but that’s not the real issue. For example, if you have a staircase with four steps combining for a 31-inch rise, a guard would be required on both sides. A set of 10 smaller steps creating a 30-inch rise, however, would not.

When a guard is required for stairs, infill materials like cable, balusters, and pickets are considered part of the guard assembly and must reach from the tread of each step to the 36-inch minimum guard height. Guards on the open sides of stairs should have a height no less than 34 inches (864 mm) measured vertically from a line connecting the leading edges of the treads. When the top of the guard also serves as a handrail on the open sides of stairs, it should be no less than 34 inches (864 mm) and no more than 38 inches (965 mm) measured vertically from a line connecting the leading edges of the treads.

The building requirements regarding handrails (Section R311.5.6), however, care about steps, not height. The code states: “Handrails shall be provided on at least one side of each continuous run of treads or flight with four or more rises.” This is because handrails are intended for support rather than protection. The more stairs there are, the more tiring climbing them is likely to be, and the more likely you’ll need something stable to grab onto. Also, take note that unlike guards, a handrail is only required on one side of the staircase.

Given the requirements mentioned above, there may be specific instances where both a guard and a handrail are required by the IRC. For example, the staircase with four steps rising a total of 31 inches would require at least one handrail with guards on both sides. In this case, when using a cable railing system, the top rail can also function as the handrail. The three subsections of R311.5.6 have the details you need regarding height, continuity, and grip size of the handrail.

As always, it is crucial to consult the local building department where the stairs are being built. Some jurisdictions may interpret these sections differently, or publish their own code altogether.

Also read: Modern Deck Rails: Glass vs Cable

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