Residential versus Commercial: A look at guards and handrails

Recently, a rather heated and interesting conversation was had with a contractor who came here to do a job for their friend’s summer home. After listening to how great a builder he was and what fine high quality and high end work he does, we had a long discussion about the difference between guards and rails.

He was sure they were the same, in all cases, no matter what kind of building or occupancy.

Yes, there is a difference between handrails and guards and how they are applied in residential and commercial.

Although they are close in some ways, there are clear differences as well. 

First you must understand the difference between what a guard is and what a handrail is.

All too often the terms are interchanged without any distinction.

The handrail is exactly that, something to hold onto and usually only applies along stairs.

The guard protects the area under the rail to prevent someone from falling off the edge of whatever is being protected.

In commercial, public assemblies and other occupancies [other than one and two family dwellings] the guard height is higher than a handrail.

It shall be at least 42 inches off the finished floor. If the guard is along the stairs, then the 42 inches is measured vertically off the nosing of the stairs.

Again, this is for commercial applications.

As per the NYS Building Code … 1013.2 Height. Guards shall form a protective barrier not less than 42 inches (1067 mm) high, measured vertically above the leading edge of the tread, adjacent walking surface or adjacent seatboard.

A good example of the two concepts in the same setting can be found at View, the arts center in Old Forge. Walk in the main entry and go upstairs.

Not only are the stairs compliant for commercial situations, but the guards and rails are also text book examples as well.

You’ll notice the handrail [the portion intended to hang onto] is at the comfortable height of about 36 inches measured vertically off the nosing of the stair.

However, the guard area goes up farther, to at least 42 inches. This is a proper application for this occupancy.

In a house, as a single family residential dwelling, the guard height shall be no less than 36 inches, which is less than what is required in commercial.

And since the handrail is required to be between 34 and 38 inches, as measured off the nosing of the stair, most railings are installed at 36 inches… this takes care of both guard and handrail without installing separate devises.

As per the NYS Residential Code R311.5.6.1 & NYS Building Code 1012.2 [Railing Height]…  Handrail height, measured above stair tread nosings, or finish surface of ramp slope shall be uniform, not less than 34 inches (864 mm) and not more than 38 inches (965 mm).

Within the guard area for either residential or commercial there are codes that limit how large a space can be.

Again, this is to prevent someone going through the area under the railing.

The old traditional “mid-rail” is kind-of a thing of the past. The code on this a pretty simple, no space shall allow the passage of a 4 inch sphere/ball.

There is a slight difference from residential to commercial, primarily because the commercial requirements for minimum guard height is higher than residential.

As per the NYS Building Code… 1013.3 Opening limitations.

Open guards shall have balusters or ornamental patterns such that a 4-inch-diameter (102 mm) sphere cannot pass through any opening up to a height of 34 inches (864 mm).

From a height of 34 inches (864 mm) to 42 inches (1067 mm) above the adjacent walking surfaces, a sphere 8 inches (203 mm) in diameter shall not pass.

As per the NYS Residential Code… R312.2 Guard opening limitations.

Required guards on open sides of stairways, raised floor areas, balconies and porches shall have intermediate rails or ornamental closures which do not allow passage of a sphere 4 inches (102mm) or more in diameter.

If you ever have a question about a particular code standard, just ask.

We can cut and paste right out of the text and email it to you. We encourage better knowledge and understanding.

And, if you think we are wrong, we want you to send the same to us.

The codes are huge and voluminous… but this stuff is pretty straight forward.

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