The Building Code’s Impact on the Design of Your Handrail

So, you need a handrail! Maybe you’d like it open and airy, so you’d like one baluster per tread. Or maybe every other tread. Better still, why not mount the rail to the wall and leave the other side of the stair open! Or perhaps you’d like a contemporary look that uses horizontal cables.


Hardwood box newel and top rail with metal balusters

These are all ideas that you might have seen in pictures. But you won’t find such installations in Ontario because they do not meet the standards set in place by the Ontario Building Code (OBC). Handrails are a structural element and, in Ontario, they must be constructed and installed to satisfy the OBC. So, when designing your handrail, your design must take into consideration the OBC’s handrail requirements. For example, with regard to the ‘horizontal cable’ idea above, since handrails need to be designed so that they cannot be climbed by children, a lot of lattice type balusters or horizontal cable (or rails) cannot be used in Ontario.

Following are some of the building code ‘rules’ that can have a visual impact on your railing design:

  • Handrail height from the nose of the stair to the top of the rail – minimum 35” (Note that this was raised from 31” in 2008, so stair rails today are higher than those in pre 2008 homes) (OBC
  • Guard rail height – minimum 36”. You can go a bit higher than this if you prefer, for added peace of mind. (OBC
  • The space between balusters must be less than 4”. This will always result in having 2 or 3 balusters on each tread of your stair. (OBC
  • Handrails must be designed so that they cannot be climbed. (The OBC does allow for a horizontal type shoe rail but it can be no greater than 5 inches from the floor) (OBC
  • For guard rails along balconies or hallways there can be a maximum of 10 ½’ distance between newel posts. If the span is greater, another newel post will need to be incorporated into the design.
  • At least one handrail up a stair needs to be continuous from top to bottom: it cannot intersect a ceiling and stop; if it jogs then it needs to be connected with an ‘S-turn’ fixture. (OBC
  • A newel post needs to be placed at the ends of a handrail (unless it is fastened to a wall) and at any change of direction
  • A handrail must be present to guard any open side of a stair or walkway (OBC

 Some typical handrail requirements (Ontario)

So, when designing a handrail, Building Code considerations provide a framework around which you will design your handrail and it will dictate things such as the placement of newels posts, spindle spacing and rail heights. The rest of the design is aesthetic in nature and becomes the purview of the home owner. The choice of newel posts, top rail and balusters is a personal one and absolutely dependent on your tastes.

Please note that the above is not intended as legal advice.  Building codes vary between jurisdictions and they are updated or changed periodically. The above parameters are for single family units and will be different for commercial buildings or apartments. Therefore you should always consult with (and abide with) your local municipal building department for current or regional building code requirements before starting your handrail project.


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