Remodeling a staircase can be a challenge. From repairing an existing staircase to completely altering the design, stairs present a unique challenge to contractors who need to comply to numerous codes when working on stairs.
“Is the staircase unsafe?” says Craig Postlewait, president of Pendulum Solutions Design Build and Post Haste Handyman in Wayne, PA. “That’s the most important thing, safety. It can be unsafe in many ways. Is it safe for people to walk on?”
For Postlewait, safety decides whether a staircase needs renovation or replacement. The basic test for safety is if someone can walk on the stairs, but safety measures also extend to unseen elements such mold and rotting on basement staircases.
Once the stairs pass or fail the safety test, contractors need to review the local regulations for staircases. If the stairs just need a quick repair, they may be grandfathered in and you won’t have to worry about regulations. However, replacing a staircase requires those stairs to be up to code.
“The biggest thing they run into with code issues is whether the railing system meets code or not,” says Postlewait. “Balusters today can’t be more than 4-inches apart, that’s a safety issue. Some of the older railings were designed for aesthetics, it became a safety issue because of small children.”
For support, handrails are required on at least one side for any set of stairs with four or more risers according to the 2012 version International Residential Code. The code also designates grip-size requirements for handrails depending on if it has a circular cross section or if the perimeter is larger than 160mm.
Postlewait cites headroom as one of the more difficult challenges to overcome, specifically in older homes as installation may involve updating other areas beyond just the stairs.
“If you’re renovating an older home and the staircase becomes part of that renovation, to bring it up to code may require additional space,” says Postlewait. The 2012 International Residential Code defines the minimum headroom for all parts of the staircase to be at least 6 feet 8 inches.
For broken stairs, there could just be one component that can be repaired. Postlewait cited broken treads or improper nosing as easier fixes on many types of stairs. Some staircases, such as factory box sets, may actually need larger renovations due to how they were assembled.
“A traditional staircase has tread with stair horses underneath them,” says Postlewait. “With factory box set stairs, basically the pieces that are on the side are what support the stairs rather than having the stair horses or stair stringers. It’s harder to remove that piece and just replace.”
For concrete or stairs made of other materials, the same basic principles for heights and widths still apply. Consistency is necessary, and could be affected if the floor is not level.
1. Safety, safety, safety. Are the stairs safe to walk on?
2. Consult local and state building codes for variances in required headroom height, tread depth, riser height, etc.
3. Mold is usually not an issue unless there’s been a fire or you’re renovating basement stairs.
4. Steps need to be consistent in height to avoid tripping.
5. Do not use slippery materials for outdoor stair surfaces.
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