Residential Stair and Handrail Code (2022 IRC Guide)

Cyril Balahadia
by Cyril Balahadia
Making sure that your home is up to code is important, especially when it comes to stairs and handrails. The new codes require that the width of a staircase can be no less than 36”. Whether it be the stair, rails, or landing, follow along as we explore the new building codes for 2022.

With the help of the members of NADRA, the 2022 edition of the International Residential Code (IRC) is now officially complete and ready for printing. The members have started developing new code the previous year to further improve the minimum standards and basic prescriptive design methods for common, residential stair and handrail construction.

Although various building authorities started implementing 2018 as the local standard, the prescriptive design provisions for 2022 offer a better alternative. This new code can easily be approved and used by building authorities the moment it is published.

Do You Need a Wood Stairs and Railing Contractor?

Get free, zero-commitment quotes from pro contractors near you.

What is the IRC Code for?

But first, let me explain what IRC code is all about…

In terms of residential stair standards, the International Residential Code (IRC) is responsible for minimum requirements for building stairs to assure a level of safety to the public. Many aspects are looked at including the height, width, and length of each area.

Now that you know the purpose of IRC, let’s not look at the code standards related to residential stairs based on the codes.

What Are the IRC Stairs Code Requirements for 2022?

One of the major changes for 2022 is the limits on stairs serving area wells that are basically big window wells. For the previous code implemented, the building authorities are only offered guidance for ladders, not stairs.

For the new code, the committee approved a proposal that allows these stairs to be steeper compared to standard stairs. There has been a proposal to remove all of the provisions by the IRC on stairways, but this was shot down.

Another proposal that was rejected was to exempt uninhabitable attics from the stairway requirements of the code – although there’s still a discussion that is likely to happen, which this might still be brought up.

Similarly, a proposal meant to clarify which exterior stairs needed to be code compliant caught some attention. However, the committee decided that stairways that don’t serve a building, deck, or porch don’t require code guidelines.

Stair geometry is an extremely shaky balance between size and safety. Bigger tread depths and lower rises are statistically safer, but they also take up more space.

What Is the Residential Stair Landing Code Requirement?

In the previous codes established, the smallest arm area of the deck to size a footing from was 20 square feet, which leaves something as small as a stair landing at a minimum 14-inch diameter for every corner post. The table was extended in order to offer a smaller, five-square-foot area to size from, which brings the minimum diameter down to as narrow as 8”.

What Is the Residential Stairways Width Code Requirement?

The width of the stairway on top of the handrail and under the minimum headroom height must not be less than 36”. Under the handrail, the width must be at least 31.5” if there’s one guardrail.

If you’re planning to put guardrails on each side, then the width must be at least 27” below the guardrail top height. If both sides have guardrails, then the width must be at least 27” below the guardrail top height.

What Is the Residential Headroom Code Requirement?

Headroom is the space from the stairs to the top – and this comes with size requirements, too. Basically, this rule prevents people from hitting their heads on ceilings. According to IRC, the headroom space must be at least 6’8”.

What Is the Residential Risers Code Requirement?

The height of the riser must not exceed 7-3/4″ in height. There must not be a height difference of more than 3/8″ between the tallest and shortest riser.

In case the stairs have open risers, then anywhere more than 30″ from the floor must not allow a sphere of 4-inch diameter to go through. Essentially, if there are no risers, then a child’s head must not be able to go through more than 30″ point from the ground.

What is the residential Treads code requirement?

The horizontal portion treads of stairs must be at least 10”. The longest tread against the shortest tread must not be over 3/8″.

IRC Handrail Code Requirements For 2022

For many years, handrails have been combined together in the specifications for minimum load resistance, although each one offers different supports to people. The minimum live load table now splits these features, mainly for the loading direction of guards to be independently assessed.

While handrails, the graspable rail by the stairs, are meant to support and should resist forces in any direction, guards that wrap all over the deck are just meant to keep us from falling outward, off the edge.

At present, they both must resist loads “in every direction”, and with the focus on testing guards to a 500-lb load, which results in some strong connections, it was fair to expect that such connections would not be essential for an inward load.

Guards shouldn’t be expected to resist this big force pulling inward or upward, and under the 2022 code, this should change. However, guard construction must also see some bad practices abolished under some other new provisions.

The Importance of Handrails

A huge part of stair construction that needs attention is the handrail. This is because studies have shown that many of the rails being constructed don’t meet the safety standards stated in the building codes.

For example, if the handrail is not strong enough, people leaning on it may find themselves falling to the ground. On the other hand, if the rail isn’t high enough, people may find themselves tripping over the edge of the stairs.

However, even though a building inspector has passed the stair and handrail code, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be liable for any accident that occurs to your property. You must also keep in mind that, whilst your stairs may comply with building codes and regulations when they are first built, they may sustain damage over time.

When is the New IRC Stairs Code Going to Take Effect?

More proposals were approved at the first hearing last year that you can read comprehensively at the NADRA blog and other different proposals from others that were not approved.

The 2022 IBC, ISPSC, and IWUIC were finalized last year and are already all set to be modified. These codes address decks at commercial buildings, swimming pools, and wildland fire locations and proposals for their continued development are due on January 11, 2022.

Do You Need a Wood Stairs and Railing Contractor?

Get free, zero-commitment quotes from pro contractors near you.

Why is it Important to Comply with these Codes?

If you ask any property owner or contractor what their biggest fear is, they will likely answer you with “liabilities.” In the world we live in, even though you’re proven not to be the blame in an accident, you’re not certain to avoid any legal responsibility. Your reputation and bank account are at risk!

This is the reason why when it comes to the stairs and handrails in your home, you must make sure that the contractor you’re hiring is complying with the codes. On top of this, you don’t want your family and everyone using your stairs to get hurt.

When you think about the types of accidents and injuries that took place around the stairs, it is not surprising why there are a lot of lawsuits in terms of the safety of these structures. According to Conney Safety, there are more than 1 million injuries occur each year because of stairway falls.

Staircase and stairway accidents were found the second leading cause of accidental injury, next to motor vehicle accidents. There are 12,000 stairways accidental deaths annually.

Stairways accidents are also the leading cause of death for people over the age of 65. And if you don’t comply with these building codes and regulations, you could easily be one of these numbers.

Remember that they don’t last forever…

Whilst the stairs and handrails may have been in pristine condition 10 years ago, keep in mind that years of misuse could have weakened its condition. This is another common reason for stair-related accidents.

So, as property owners, maintenance and regularly checking the stairs is necessary. Again, if you don’t want your home to become just another statistic in the soaring list of stair-related injuries or even death, comply with the building codes and regulations.

On top of this, you have to make sure that your stairs are checked every so often by an inspector or contractor. This will make sure that they’re still in great condition for everyday use.

If repairs or adjustments are necessary, make sure to do them as soon as possible!

Related Guide

Cyril Balahadia
Cyril Balahadia

Coming from a family of woodcarvers, Cyril has always been fascinated with wooden interiors and home decorating. While she followed the path of writing as her career, her interests in home improvements still remain.

More by Cyril Balahadia