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Pipe picket stair railing at a church showcasing building codes to be examined

Do you Know your Code? Part Two

  •   Posted on September 17, 2018

Does a handrail just get installed on a step because the building owner is being nice? Do they just pick a spot on the wall and say: "looks good, fasten it there?" As it turns out, handrails have their own sets of rules within the larger building code to create a consistent, safe set of standards. 

As we discussed in part one of our deep dive into railing code, all aspects of a construction project must meet a specific set of code requirements set forth by the International Code Council. The last time we entered the world of building codes we discussed regulations related to guardrails and picket spacing. This time, we are going to plunge into rules that deal with handrail. Section 1014 of the International Building Code has a full listing of codes related to handrails within a project. If you aren't sure what a building code is or want to learn more about the construction industry as a whole, you can find further information here

Disclaimer: All code discussed in this article is the national code. Some states/cities/townships have more specific code requirements which supersede the national code. Always check for additional requirements in your project area. 


From a commercial standpoint, a handrail is required on both sides of steps or ramps that feature a rise greater than six inches. 

Pipe handrail on both sides of an interior stairway

Residential applications vary in terms of handrail requirements. In general, the state, county, or municipality will have requirements that must be followed for new construction or renovation.


Just like guard rails, handrail heights have been restricted by the code council. The council determined that handrail heights must be between 34" and 38", measured from the stair tread (or the surface of the ramp) to the topmost surface of the handrail. So...where does this seemingly random range come from?

Consider the fact that many children begin walking around age one, where the average height is 30" tall. Also consider that once an individual reaches a height taller than the 34"-38" range, their arms should be plenty long to reach this handrail height, regardless of how tall they ultimately end up. This range allows accessible usage to people both big and small... after all, everyone has a right to a safe journey up and down the stairs or ramp!

If you read part one of our building code deep-dive, you will recall that a commercial guardrail must be 42" off the ground. This naturally creates an issue, as said guardrails are now too tall for handrail requirements, meaning another piece must be installed. As a remedy to this issue, most handrail systems are built to attach to the guardrail in order to create a code-compliant combo. 

Sample of the different heights of guardrail and handrail

The nature of handrails makes it such that the manufacturer can only do so much to ensure compliance in terms of height. All a manufacturer can control is the more obvious code restriction that handrail should be uniform throughout a run. Beyond this, it is up to the final installer to properly measure and install a given handrail system. 


While yes there are several more code restrictions when it comes to handrail, we find it best not to overwhelm with information all at once. There will be another day soon where we dive deeper into the building code! For now, know that at Superior Aluminum we make it a priority to help you follow the codes...we may be in the railing business, but safety is ultimately our job. If you have more in-depth questions about handrail codes or would like to learn more about how Superior Aluminum meets code requirements, feel free to contact us. Stay tuned for more building code tips in the future! 


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