Many of us probably don’t think twice about handrails or guardrails when we see them. The only time railings seem to make a difference in our lives is when we need them. If you are injured, handicapped, or perhaps tired then railings can not only be helpful but critical to our ability to navigate.
For architects and designers understanding the difference between handrails and guardrails is critical from both a design and building code perspective. Crucial measurements and code requirements must be adhered to be compliant. This blog will provide a brief overview and guide on handrails and some key code requirements as defined by the International Building code (IBC).
Handrails vs. Guardrails
In this blog, we are going to discuss handrails and five key building codes, but it’s important to understand the difference between guardrails and handrails.
A handrail is a railing used for support on stairs, a ramp, or other inclined platforms that require some level of navigation. Handrails run on the incline up and down of a set of stairs or ramp. They are intended to provide support for pedestrians to grasp with their hands and used for guidance and support to navigate up or down. When designing, specifying, or installing handrails it is critical to make sure the handrail is graspable with the ability for hand to access the rail and your fingers to wrap around the railing and grip it tightly to keep from falling. Handrails must be designed to IBC requirements and comply with the American Disabilities Act (ADA).
Guardrails run horizontally along a raised or elevated platform or other flat areas with a dropoff on at least one of the sides. A guardrail is designed to prevent falling from considerable heights and is considered a life-saving device and are designed specifically for safety. Guardrails can also be installed on elevated walkways, stairs, and stair landings for additional safety. Guardrails are subjected to code compliance testing that includes concentrated load tests and deflection testing. Guardrail testing insures that it can withstand the force of someone pushing or falling against them. It’s not uncommon to have the combination of guardrails and handrails designed together to provide the highest level of safety.
Sometimes there is confusion with handrails and guardrails especially when they are designed and used together. To simplify the difference, handrails only need to offer stability and a continuous guide along a stair or ramp. Guardrails, independent or in combination with a handrail, must be strong enough and resist breakage if a person or object falls or pushes on the rail.
WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL BUILDING CODE (IBC)?
The International Building Code or the IBC, is the most commonly adopted commercial building code in the country. The IBC, is a model code, providing minimum standards to safeguard the occupants of commercial buildings. The IBC falls under the parent organization of the International Code Council (ICC). There is also a residential version of the IBC called the International Residential Code (IRC). The International Code Council (ICC) develops and updates the IBC code after every three years. The most recent edition, as of this writing, is the 2021 edition. The ICC conducts a review to ensure that the IBC meets the requirements of the FHA (Fair Housing Act) and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).
Odds are if you are an architect or contractor reading this article you are familiar with both the IBC and the IRC. Local building codes may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but most are based on the IBC and IRC as a base minimum standard. Local codes may exceed the IBC or IRC minimums but can not be lessor than the defined codes.
WHY IS THE INTERNATIONAL BUILDING CODE IMPORTANT FOR HANDRAILS?
There are numerous standards in the International Building Code that are related specifically to Handrails. Essentially handrails are designed to provide guidance, support and safety for stairs and ADA ramps with a rise of 6 inches. The IBC defines the various design requirements for handrails, providing clear and concise specifications. We are going to look at five key IBC code requirements for handrails. Additionally, we have listed all the other requirements that are in the IBC.
FIVE IBC CODE REQUIREMENTS FOR HANDRAILS
IBC Sections 1011, 1014, 1607, and 2407 all address various handrail code requirements and specifications. Here are five critical IBC code requirements you should know along with our comprehensive list of IBC handrail code references.
IBC Code Requirement 1: Handrail Height — 34”- 38”
CODE REFERENCE: IBC Section 1014 Handrails: 1014.2 Height
Handrails must be installed on both sides of stairs and ramps. They are usually added on either side of stairways, ramps, ramped aisles, and stepped aisles. And, as mentioned, they must have a uniform height between 34-38 inches.
The minimum clearance between handrails and other objects should be 2.25 inches. And, it’s important that handrails have a shape that’s easy to grasp. As for load requirements, handrails should be able to withstand a 200-pound concentrated load applied in an upward or downward direction.
Other requirements include:
- The gripping surfaces should have minimal obstruction.
- They must be continuous
- There should be no sharp or abrasive elements, and handrails should have rounded edges
- Handrails mustn’t rotate within their fittings
- Handrails should extend horizontally above the landing for a minimum of 12” beyond the bottom and the top of the stair and ramp runs
IBC Code Requirement 2: Handrail Diameter — 1.25” – 2”
CODE REFERENCE: IBC Section 1014 Handrails: 1014.3.1 Part 1 Circular Handrails
The IBC requires that for all circular handrails, the outsider diameter should not be less than 1.25 inches and must not be greater than 2 inches. This affects a user’s grip, so a bigger handrail might be difficult to grasp on to.
If the handrail isn’t circular, the perimeter dimension should not be less than 4 inches and mustn’t be greater than 6.25 inches. The maximum and minimum cross-sectional dimension should be 2.25 inches and 1 inch, respectively. A minimum radius of 0.01 inches is required for the edges.
IBC Code Requirement 3: Minimum Hand Clearance — Not Less Than 1.5”
CODE REFERENCE: IBC Section 1014 Handrails: 1014.7 Clearance
According to IBC Section 1014.7, the clearance space between a wall and a handrail, and any other surfaces, must not be less than 1.5 inches, or 38 mm.
This indicates the space a person will use to grasp the handrail. The handrail should be continuous, and free from any sharp elements to allow the hand to move freely without any obstructions across the length of the entire railing.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a global organization that focuses on mitigating injury or economic loss caused due to fire or electrical hazards. The association has more than 300 consensus standards and codes.
In this code, there are two standards that apply:
- The NFPA 101: Life Safety Code
- NFPA 5000: Building Construction and Safety Code
The latter was published as an alternative to the I Codes, though it hasn’t been adopted as much. The fire inspector can reject an installation, even if it’s approved by an inspector. The minimum clearance between handrails and other objects is specified at 2.25 inches.
IBC Code Requirement 4: Maximum Projection of Railing — 4.5”
CODE REFERENCE: IBC Section 1014 Handrails: 1014.8 Projections
The IBC states: “Projections into the required width of aisles, stairways, and ramps at each side shall not exceed 4.5 inches (114 mm) at or below the handrail height.”
The projection from the wall simply indicates the distance between the handrail and the wall that it’s affixed to. This means that the farthest edge of the handrail from the wall should not exceed more than 4.5 inches from the wall.
Projections due to intermediate handrails shall not constitute a reduction in the egress width. Where a pair of intermediate handrails are provided within the stairway width without a walking surface between the pair of intermediate handrails and the distance between the pair of intermediate handrails is greater than 6 inches (152 mm), the available egress width shall be reduced by the distance between the closest edges of each such intermediate pair of handrails that is greater than 6 inches (152 mm).
IBC Code Requirement 5: Minimum Distance Between Two Railings — Under 30”
CODE REFERENCE: IBC Section 1014 Handrails: 1014.9 Intermediate Handrails
Stair users often prefer remaining within comfortable reach of handrails, along their natural path of travel, even if they don’t grasp it. As a result, the IBC recommends that the minimum distance between two stair railings must always be under 30 inches.
This way, should a person need access to a handrail, it’ll be within reach. Measurements must be taken from the inside surfaces of each handrail. The IBC doesn’t require or want, people having to reach farther to access a handrail for accessibility.
As per section 1014.9 in Chapter 10 Means of Egress of the IBC, this also applies to intermediate handrails. According to section 1011.11, handrails must be installed on each side in commercial buildings.
Handrails are designed to provide guidance. They’re required on stairs with two or more risers, or on ADA ramps that have a rise of 6”. Handrails are required on both sides of ramps and stairs in commercial buildings.
But, on walking surfaces that have a running slope less than 1:20, handrails aren’t a necessity. The 2010 ADASAD (ADA Standards for Accessible Design) recommends a maximum height of 28” for children’s railings, with a clearance of at least 9” between that and the adult’s railing.
Handrails are also required on ADA ramps that have a minimum rise of 6”.
Key Specs for Handrails
- Handrail height: 34”-38”
- Maximum project of railing from wall: 4.5”
- Maximum hand clearance from wall: not below 1.5”
- The minimum distance between two railings: <30”
- Handrail diameter: 1.25”-2”
- Handrail top horizontal extensions: 12”
- Handrail bottom extension horizontal distance should be equal to one tread depth beyond the nosing of the last riser
- Required handrails for commercial buildings: 2
Key Specs for Handrails
- IBC 1011.11: Stairways shall have handrails on each side
- IBC 1011.11: Stairways shall have handrails on each side that comply with section 1014.
- IBC 1011.11 Key Exception: Stairways within dwelling units are permitted to have a handrail on one side only
- IBC 1012.8: Ramps with a rise greater than 6” shall have handrails on both sides. Handrails shall comply with section 1014.
- IBC 1014.2: Handrail height, measured above stair tread nosing’s, or finish surface of ramp slope, shall be uniform, not less than 34” and not more than 38”
- IBC 1014.3.1 Part 1: Circular handrails shall have an outside diameter of not less than 1.25” and not greater than 2”
- IBC 1014.3.1 Part 2: Where the handrail is not circular, it shall have a perimeter dimension of not less than 4” and not greater than 6.25” inches with a maximum cross-sectional dimension of 2.25” and the minimum cross-sectional dimension of 1”
- IBC 1014.4: Handrail gripping surfaces shall be continuous, without interruptions by newel posts or other obstructions (Handrails within dwelling units are permitted to be interrupted by a newel post on turns and landings)
- IBC 1014.4 Key Exception: Handrail brackets or pickets attached to the bottom of the handrail that do not project horizontally beyond the sides of the handrail within 1.5” of the bottom of the handrail shall not be considered obstructions
- IBC 1014.7: Clear space between a handrail and a wall or other surface shall be not less than 1.5”
- IBC 1014.8: Handrail Projections, Guidance provided regarding obstruction in required egress for intermediate handrails
- IBC 1014.9: Intermediate Handrails, Stairways shall have intermediate handrails located in such a manner that all portions of the stairway minimum width or required capacity are within 30 inches (762 mm) of a handrail.
- IBC 1607.8.1: Handrail shall be designed to resist a linear load of 50 pounds per linear foot
- IBC 1607.8.1.1: Handrail shall resist a concentrated load of 200 pounds
- IBC 1607.8.1.2: Intermediate rails, pickets, and posts shall be designed to resist a concentrated load of 50 pounds
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