9 Beautifully Dramatic Staircases (That Might Actually Pass Code)

9 Beautifully Dramatic Staircases (That Might Actually Pass Code)

Nancy Mitchell
Apr 21, 2015

Last week I published a roundup of 17 incredibly beautiful and dramatic staircases. But, as some prescient commenters pointed out, hardly any of the staircases on the list would pass muster with a code inspector here in the U.S.. The series of guidelines that govern what kind of staircases you can and can't build may be a bit limiting for designers, but they're definitely a good thing when it comes to personal safety. So this week, I've hunted down nine beautiful, eye-catching staircases that you could actually build. Legally.

Before we see the staircases, let's quickly take a look at the building codes that govern what you can and can't do with your stairs. The section on staircases in the International Residential Code, or IRC, which has been adapted by most municipalities as a guideline for residential design, has a lot to say about stair rise and run, but for our purposes we're going to focus on the rules governing guardrails and handrails. Here are a few things that have to be true about your staircase in order for it to pass code in most cities:

  • The staircase has to be at least 36 inches wide.
  • Any staircase with more than 3 risers has to has to have a handrail on at least one side.
  • The handrail must be between 34 and 38 inches above the stairs, and must be continuous along the entire staircase.
  • "Open-sided walking surfaces", aka parts of a staircase where you could fall to your death, or anything over 30 inches above the floor, have to be provided with guard rails, which must be at 34 inches tall. The top of a guard rail can also function as the handrail.
  • This is the real kicker: guard rails can't have any openings which would allow passage of a sphere 4 inches in diameter. This is, presumably, so that a baby's head cannot become stuck in a staircase railing. You'll see railings in old buildings that violate this all the time, but those things are grandfathered, unless, of course, you decide to remodel.
  • Open risers on stairs are ok, provided that that same 4" sphere could not pass through the space between the treads. This means, essentially, that if you want open risers you're going to need some really thick treads, which you'll see on a couple of the staircases below.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and some cities have adopted additional guidelines to those in the IRC. Before you build anything, consult an architect! They are paid to know more about this stuff than you.

Above: The staircase up top is by New York firm Ike Kligerman Barkley. This beauty passes the 4" sphere test, and it even has handrails, too (with the top of the railing on the top flight functioning as the handrail).

(Image credit: AD España)

This staircase, from a home spotted on AD España, would pass code if it had a handrail on the opposite side from the railing. (The top of the railing is allowed to function as a handrail only if it has a round profile between 1 1/4" and 2" in diameter, or if it has a perimeter dimension of at least 4 inches and not greater than 6 inches. Isn't code thrilling?)

Here's another beautiful and completely legal staircase, by Spillman Echsle Architects.

(Image credit: Arch Daily)

Here you see the aforementioned open risers — these would be ok because the stair treads are thick enough that the 4" sphere could not pass through. From a house by AHL architects, spotted on Arch Daily.

(Image credit: Divisare)

This staircase, designed by David Chipperfield Architects and spotted on Divisare, is well-provided with handrails and guard rails, because it's in a commercial building, where guidelines for stairs are even stricter.

(Image credit: The D Pages)

It's hard to tell for sure, but I think there's a handrail somwehere in this staircase by Carr Design Group. If so, pass. Spotted on The D Pages.

(Image credit: Arch Daily)

This staircase, in a Swiss home by studio inches architects, very nearly passes muster. Spotted on Arch Daily. If the handrail were to wrap all the way around to the bottom step it would be ok (although the winders might still disqualify it, depending on how they measure).

(Image credit: Arch Daily)

Do these tension wires count as a guardrail? If so, this Hamptons house spotted on Arch Daily is golden.

(Image credit: The D Pages)

And finally, a totally beautiful and totally code-legal marble stair from a Paris townhouse (of course it's in Paris) by Kathryn Scott Design Studio, spotted on The D Pages. You could probably pass a 4" sphere through the bottom part of that railing, but we're gonna say that that part is less than 30 inches off the ground and call it a day.

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