In North Carolina, the state building code sets the requirements for handrails, a rail designed to be grasped by the hand to provide safety and support. A guardrail, in contrast, is defined as a rail that prevents a person from falling off an edge or being hit by an object such as a vehicle.
In residential buildings, handrails must be provided on both sides of each continuous run of stair treads or flight with four or more risers.
A stair tread is the horizontal portion of a set of stairs on which a person walks. A riser is the vertical face between the back of the tread of one stair and the front of the tread of the stair above. This means that four or more steps require a handrail in North Carolina.
Stair Handrail Height Guidelines
The height of a handrail should be measured vertically from the sloped plane adjoining the tread nosing. Nosing is the edge of a step or stair tread that projects beyond the riser. Nosing typically provides a rounded edge to a stair.
The purpose of nosing is to make stairways safer by giving a person extra space to place their feet. The height of a handrail should not be less than 34 inches and not more than 38 inches.
Where handrail fittings are used to provide continuous transition between flights, transitions at wider treads, the transition from handrail to guardrail – the handrail height at the fittings or bendings – are permitted to exceed 38 inches.
Handrail Continuity Guidelines
Handrails for stairways should be continuous for the full length of the flight. There should be handrails on both sides of the stairs. The continuity should extend from a point directly above the top riser of the flight to a point directly above the lowest riser of the flight.
Handrail ends should be returned or terminate in newel posts, the central supporting pillar of a spiral or winding staircase or the post at the head or foot of a flight of stairs. Handrail ends may also be returned or terminate in safety terminals, the points at which the handrail end turn to and attach to a wall or ends. Handrails adjacent to a wall must have a space of not less than 1 ½ inches between the wall and handrails.
Exceptions to these rules are:
- Handrails may be interrupted by a newel post at the turn in the staircase.
- Use of a starting newel is allowed over the lowest tread.
- Two or more separate rails are considered continuous if the termination of the rails occurs within 6 inches of each other. If there is a transition between a wall-mounted handrail and a guardrail or handrail, the wall-mounted rail shall return into the wall.
Allowable Grip Size of Handrails
Handrails should be of one of the following types, or provide equivalent graspability.
- Type I: Handrails with a circular cross section shall have an outside diameter of not less than 1 ¼ inches and not greater than 2 inches. If the handrail is not circular, it shall have a perimeter dimension of not less than 4 inches and not greater than 6 ¼ inches with a cross section dimension of not more than 2 ¼ inches. Edges shall have a radius of not less than 0.01 inch.
- Type II: Handrails with a perimeter greater than 6 ¼ inches shall have a graspable finger recess area on both sides of the profile. The finger recess shall begin within a distance of three-quarter inch measured vertically from the tallest portion of the profile and achieve a depth of not less than 5/16 inch within ⅞ inch below the widest portion of the profile. This required depth shall continue for not less than ⅜ inch to a level that is not less than 1 ¾ inches below the tallest portion of the profile. The width of the handrail above the recess shall not be less than 1 ¼ inches and not more than 2 ¾ inches. Edges shall have a radius of not less than 0.01 inch.
The exception is that exterior handrails, for garages and areas exposed to weather, shall not be more than 3 ½ inches in cross-section dimension. Handrails should have the shape and dimension that allow a person to grasp them firmly.
The ends of a handrail should not present any hazard. Handrails are required to be continuous for the full length of each stair flight or ramp run. Handrails may not be obstructed along their tops or sides.
A handrail is required on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ramps with a rise of 6 inches. Handrails are required on both sides of ramps. Curb ramps are not required to have handrails.
Guardrails for Patios and Porches
Cities may set the required heights for railings on porches and decks. For example, Durham County and the City of Raleigh require a railing on an attached or self-supporting deck on a home to be between 34 inches and 38 inches high.
The openings on the side of the stairs requiring guards shall not allow a sphere 4 ⅜ inch to pass. If the walking surface of the deck is 30 inches from the ground, the deck must be surrounded by guardrails that are a minimum of 36 inches in height.
The steps for the deck must have guardrails on both sides if there are four or more individual risers, described as spaces between steps. If the steps have a total rise of 30 inches or more above ground level, the guardrails or handrails must be provided on open sides of the steps.
Horizontal Spacing Residential Building Code Requirements
The North Carolina State Building Code provides that guardrails on open sides of stairways, raised floor areas, balconies and porches must have intermediate rails or ornamental closures that do not allow the passage of an object 6 inches or more in diameter.
Horizontal spacing between the vertical members, such as balusters, short pillars or columns, in required guardrails are to be a maximum of 4 inches at the nearest point between the members. The exception to this rule is the triangular openings formed by the stair riser, tread and bottom rail of a guard at the open side of a stairway may be such a size that a sphere 6 inches cannot pass through.
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.