Stair hand rails are often taken for granted. They are important, especially for kids and the infirm. They can also present issues when they are not there or not compliant.
1. What are Stair Hand Rails?
Rather than stating the obvious let’s look at the technical definition provided within the 2015 Building Code of Australia
(a) Handrails to a stairway or ramp must—
(i) be located along at least one side of the flight or ramp; and
(ii) be located along the full length of the flight or ramp, except in the case where a handrail is associated with a barrier, the handrail may terminate where the barrier terminates; and
(iii) have the top surface of the handrail not less than 865 mm vertically above the nosings of the stair treads or the floor surface of the ramp; and
(iv) have no obstruction on or above them that will tend to break a handhold, except for newel posts, ball type stanchions, or the like.
2. Inside or Outside?
It is important to note that the same obligations in relation to hand rails on internal stairs also apply to stairs external to the property:
3. Stair Terminology
4. So What are the Key Issues We Come Across?
Well the first issue is what if there are no hand rails at all?
When they are missing the building would have a significant defect and a safety omission.
The second issue is to determine when do they need to be continuous and when they are not there, is there no newel post?
The BCA Code requirement for residential buildings is that a handrail needs to be continuous on each flight of stairs. The handrail does not need to be continuous on the landing between flights as long as there is a newel post. Winders refer to treads within a straight flight that are used to change direction of the stair. A continuous handrail is required on a winder, except in cases where there is a newel post installed to provide a handhold.
A newel post is an upright post that supports the handrail and staircase. See. below.
5. Impacts for Buyers of Existing Homes
Where there is a problem with a hand rail in a property being purchased, the issue is likely to be borne by the buyer unless it is identified prior to an offer to purchase being negotiated. Defects with hand rails will not be defined as a structural defect, but will be identified as a building defect and a safety omission. Given the issue will not be captured by the often used REIWA structural defect clause, buyers need to ensure that their offer price reflects any costs to remediate absent or non-compliant hand rails.
6. Impacts for Property Owners Building an New Home
Where a property is constructed without a hand rail, property owners would normally be able to raise the issue with the builder as a construction defect and have the builder remediate the problem prior to hand over.
Stair hand rails are often taken for granted as just being there. However, there are some very clear requirements for hand rails and when these requirements have not been complied with there is the real potential for a significant safety issue, especially for children, elderly and infirm.
Where a property is being purchased, defects in the hand rails will generally fall back on the buyer to resolve unless the issue is identified early enough in the negotiation process as the issue will not be captured by the often relied upon “structural defect” clause.
Where a new home is being built it will generally fall upon the builder to ensure that hand rails are installed and are compliant to the Building Code of Australia.