We use handrails every day, but most of us rarely think about how they’re designed and constructed. The fact is, the requirements for guards and handrails are some of the most complex in the building code, especially when you consider the fact that they’re a traditional and familiar part of buildings.
Handrails have to be the right height to prevent falls, and they have to be safely constructed, so that they don’t invite climbing and so that a small child cannot wiggle through or get stuck. Rails have to be easily graspable and at a convenient height for as many people as possible. Both top rails and railings must be sturdy and well anchored. It must not be possible for stairway handrails or the intermediate posts on a rail to collapse under the force of a hard shove or a fall.
A Few Basic Rules
Under the Building Code of Australia (BCA), a guard must be provided for any ledge or stair that is more than a metre in height. Balusters and guardrails with a drop of four metres or more must not have climbable elements between 150mm and 760mm above the floor. There must be a handrail of at least 40mm in diameter at the top of the guard. It must not be possible for a 125mm diameter sphere (a child’s head) to pass through or under the railing.
There are structural requirements, as well. The rail must be able to withstand a concentrated load of up to 0.6 kN and a distributed load of 0.4 kN applied inward, outward or downward. The details are in Australian Standard 1170.1. Wind loads may apply, as well.
Recent Changes to the BCA’s Handrail Requirements
The current 2012 building code has introduced some minor changes to the rules about handrails. Where previously, residential stairways with walls on both sides did not officially require handrails, handrails are now required whether or not there’s a guardrail or balusters. This applies to both stairs and ramps, but not to stairs that lead to uninhabited areas like attics and other storage areas, or to stairs that are less than a metre high. Handrails must be uninterrupted, for the most part.
When you work with a designer, contractor or stair manufacturer, make sure that they can provide guards and handrails that meet the requirements of the current 2012 Building Code of Australia. Dont forget that BCA 2014 is due out soon.