Created | Updated Feb 22, 2010
Almost all of us encounter the handrail everyday - it's virtually ubiquitous. From a simple piece of pipe mounted on the wall next to a stair or ramp to a complex wrought iron structure preventing falls from a balcony - handrails are diverse in their forms. A brief glance at almost any magazine will find glossy advertisements showing a handsome couple with an exotic background separated by a railing. Every style of architecture can be accented by the type of railing used on a façade; sometimes they serve no purpose other than decoration. In most cases they serve the important function of preventing serious injury or death from falling.
Balustrades, Banisters and Newel Posts
One of the oldest forms of handrail is the balustrade, made from cut stone or concrete. The continuous upper rail is supported by a series of upright posts, the balusters. These are most often shaped like a vase or urn. Castles, manor houses, museums and public buildings often have massive balustrades. Today there are several modern materials that can be used to create a balustrade without the cost and weight of real stone.
The term 'banister' is often used interchangeably with 'handrail', although technically this only refers to stairways, and there is some confusion on the exact meaning of the term. Traditionally these were elaborately-carved wood grip-rails with a large column at each end, topped with a decorative piece such as a ball. These columns are the newel posts. Modern concern for safety and access for the disabled make these designs impractical in most new buildings. One of the best displays of banisters can be seen in Professor Henry Higgins's study in the movie My Fair Lady. Another interesting feature is that many old mansions used the upper floors to house the servants. Quite often you can see the intricacy and quality of the handrails decrease in the upper floors of these homes.
The design of almost every structure built today must meet certain rules for safety. These include how much weight must be supported, resistance to high winds and earthquake, and how quickly a building can be evacuated in an emergency such as fire. Access to persons with disabilities is also an important consideration in modern building design. Every building code has sections dealing with the two types of handrail, guard rails and grip rails. As the building code requirements become more restrictive, older structures are usually allowed to only comply with the codes that existed when they were built: this is known as a grandfather clause. When the building is renovated or its use has changed these conditions must be replaced to meet current codes. Some extremely hazardous conditions may need to be upgraded within a certain period of time. Before a building is turned over to its owner, it must receive a 'Certificate of Occupancy', where an inspector states that all the building codes have been met.
Guard rails, as their name implies, guard people from falling or entering a dangerous area. Some obvious places where guard rails are required are the open edge of balconies and stairways. Most building codes require any drop of more than 30 inches to be protected by a guard rail. Guard rails are usually required to be a certain height above the floor, such as 42 inches (1.07 metres), and are designed so that a ball of a certain diameter can not be passed through the rail, usually four inches (10 cm). The space, if any, between the bottom member and the floor is often limited so that items on the floor such as a discarded bottle can not be accidentally kicked over the edge injuring people below; however this is sometimes not used in cold climates where it might cause an excessive accumulation of snow.
Grip-rails are provided to allow a person to support their weight in places such as stairs or ramps where tripping could be a hazard. Nursing homes and hospitals often provide grip-rails along the walls of every corridor and next to toilets and showers. Grip-rails are required to be a certain size for easy gripping and to be placed at a proper height, usually 34 inches (86 cm) above the floor or line of stair treads. In multi-storey buildings the inside grip-rails should be continuous so the a person can find their way out by feel if their vision is impaired by smoke or a power failure. They must terminate on the floor where there is access to the outside so nobody can accidentally find themselves trapped in a basement. Sometimes a single rail will serve as both grip-rail and guard-rail on a stair, or a separate grip rail may be mounted to the guard-rail at a lower height. Buildings that serve small children - such as infants' schools - often provide a second grip rail at a lower height.
Styles and Materials
Handrails can be made of almost any building material including wood, steel, iron, aluminum, brass, glass and any combinations of these. As stated above the basic design of the building often dictates the style of handrail used. A Mediterranean-style building will almost certainly have thin metal railings, while a modern design may use tempered glass panels topped with a round tube of brass or stainless steel. The simplest type of handrail is made from common pipes like those used by plumbers, whereas others use tubes, either round, square or rectangular in section. The only difference between round tube and pipe are in the way they are measured: a 2-inch (5 cm) tube will have an outside measurement of two inches, while a 2" pipe has a nominal inside measurement of two inches.
One of the most common styles of guard-rail has a top rail supported by posts, a bottom rail between the posts just above the floor and a series of pickets running between top and bottom rail to provide a barrier. Others consist of a series of horizontal pipes or tubes between the posts. Although quite popular these rails can be used as ladders by small children and impaired adults - thus defeating their intended purpose. Thick glass may be mounted into the floor to provide a barrier and are usually topped with some type of top rail. Panels of glass, metal or wood may be used in place of the pickets mentioned above. Quite often sections of squares, diagonals or circles may be used to provide an accent to the rail, but in all cases they must be placed close enough together to meet the building code requirements.
The first consideration in designing a handrail are of course the safety requirements to obey the building code. Almost as important are the ascetic requirements of the particular project you are building. The now-popular sport of using handrails as impromptu skateboard parks adds another challenge as how to discourage this practice without defeating the intended purpose.