First, a quick terminology review:

  • Guardrail: a barrier installed at the edge of a raised surface (such as a balcony, mezzanine or staircase) to prevent users from falling.
  • Handrail: refers generally to the continuous railing that guides the user along the wall next to a staircase. A handrail is also an integral part of a guardrail.
  • Banister: a more colloquial term that is sometimes heard, which refers to both the guardrail and handrail on a staircase.

Are you code-compliant?

If you own a house that’s several years old, your guardrails and handrails may no longer be compliant with building codes. They probably were once, but the codes change all the time. Your municipality will tolerate a non-compliant guardrail or handrail  (with some exceptions, including backyard pool access) until you apply for a permit to renovate: at that point, you will have to “bring them up to code.”

 So tell me, what’s your code?

There are, of course, national codes (the National Building Code of Canada, or NBC) and provincial ones (e.g., Quebec Construction Code). Before starting work, though, you should also check with your municipality to find out which version of the provincial code applies where you live, and whether any specific bylaws also apply.

A specialized company or general contractor will most often be aware of the codes currently in effect, but if you are a homeowner who wants to do the work yourself, you must be well aware of the rules for guardrails and handrails, because you could be held liable for any damages resulting from improperly built structures. Moreover, an insurer, following an inspection, could decide to cease coverage for the home of someone who refuses to install or modify a handrail or guardrail to make it code-compliant. Unlike in the case of, say, a “water damage” endorsement, civil liability is involved here. The civil-liability clause is an integral part of the basic home insurance policy, and cannot be left out.

The professionals at CAA-Quebec’s Residential Advisory Services can help members in the process of making code-compliant renovations who have specific questions. Here, though, is some useful information applicable to private dwellings.


1. Guards

Guardsin Quebec, a guardrail is required on a deck with a surface that is more than 600 mm (2 ft) above the ground. The rail must be at least 900 mm (3 ft) high. If the deck surface is more than 1,800 mm (6 ft) above the ground, the guard must be at least 1,070 mm (3 ft, 6 in.) high. There is an exception, however, for guardrail on decks that provide access to swimming pools.

For guardrails inside the home, there is only one minimum height: 900 mm (3 ft).

Besides having minimum heights, guardrails—whether located inside or outside—must also be able to resist loads and pressure: for example, a momentary side load of 0.5 kilonewtons (113 lb/sq ft). This means that the guardrail posts must be solidly anchored to the ground.

It is also very important that guardrails not include any openings large enough for a spherical object 100 mm (4 in.) in diameter to fit through (the idea is that a young child might try to stick their head into such an opening). A guardrail must not be climbable, either. For the rest, designers can give their imagination free rein. Sheets of tempered or laminated glass are allowed, provided that they are manufactured in compliance with the NBC safety requirements.


2. Handrails

Guards and HandrailsA handrail must be easy to locate, provide continuous support, and have a shape that makes it easy to hold on to. It must be at least 50 mm (2 in.) from any continuous surface, and must not encroach by more than 100 mm (4 in.) on the required width of the stairwell. The ends of the handrail, moreover, must not be in any way dangerous to people with limited vision, or to children’s heads, or to anyone wearing loose clothing or carrying cumbersome items up or down the stairs.

  • When is a handrail required?
    A handrail is mandatory in any interior stairway that has more than two risers and serves a single dwelling unit.
    Outside, a handrail is required on a stairway that has more than three risers and serves a single dwelling unit.
  • How high does it need to be?
    A recent amendment to the NBC sets handrail height at between 865 mm (34 in.) and 965 mm (38 in.). If a handrail is needed to make a stair landing safe, it must be at least 1,070 mm (42 in.) high.
  • Are two handrails needed, or is one enough?

A single handrail is enough if the stairway is less than 1,100 mm (43½ in.) wide. Any stairway wider than that requires a handrail on each side (exception: inside a dwelling, the 2010 NBC allows for a handrail on one side only). And in the case of a exterior staircase that is curved, regardless of its width, there must be handrails on both sides.