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I just had a retaining wall and patio installed in my back yard. There is a stairway set in the retaining wall with nine steps. We just had what was supposed to be the final sign-off, and got a different inspector who is new to the town. She is telling me I need a handrail, and cited 2015 IRC R311.7. I read this as requirements for egress stairs attached to a dwelling, which this is not. I'm pretty ticked off because there was never a handrail in our plan that was approved by the town, and we've had 5-6 intermediate inspections where the previous inspector never brought it up. So now that the project is effectively complete, I'm scrambling to figure out how to integrate some sort of handrail. I know this is kind of a gray area as far as code application...I'm looking for some sort of argument to take back to the town to make a case that it's not required in this application. Has anyone had luck in doing this sort of thing?

edited to add a photo of said steps - blue line indicates proposed handrail (would be on both sides)

wall stairway

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    It is a pain when this happens, but maybe the inspector is doing you a favor. You fight and win, but in the future someone who does not like you trips down the stairs without a hand rail.
    – crip659
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 15:39
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    I would definitely push back, because R311 specifically refers to dwellings. If you have a pic, perhaps we could come up with a temporary solution.
    – Huesmann
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 15:53
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    You're getting suggestions to follow the inspector's demand, even if it's not a code requirement. I definitely get that this is frustrating, especially since it's a last minute change and nobody else flagged it as a requirement earlier on when it may have been easier to swallow. Unfortunately, though, that may be your best bet, and, since the inspector has the last say, you may not have any choice...
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 16:12
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    Sadly, this is a standard behavior of some of the jerks drawn to being inspectors - even when it's the same inspector, rather than a new one, they'll bring things up at the last minute that they passed by without comment in 5 prior inspections. The petty tyrant complex. On the other hand, that's a fairly long and steep set of stairs, where a handrail might well prevent or mitigate accidents. You might have a leg to stand on given that you had a plan review before starting, but it likely won't be fun and satisfying.
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 16:22
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    Amazingly we have an almost identical store in NZ. We did not have to put stone steps in on the side to go to the back of the yard. As soon as we did, the next inspector insisted on a handrail. We only put the handrail on one side. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 3:54

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TL;DR Put in the Handrail and Be Happy It Isn't Worse

A handrail is clearly a good idea on a steep set of stairs like that. If it was only 2 or 3 steps, no big deal. If the steps were each much longer (3' or more) then no big deal. But based on the picture, you need a handrail. Not necessarily for code (code mostly deals with inside the building) but for safety.

The first time you try to climb up/down those stairs carrying something heavy in one hand, so you can't steady yourself so easily with the other hand on the bricks, you will really appreciate being able to grab a handrail.

The first time an elderly relative or guest tries to climb up/down those stairs, they (and you) will really appreciate being able to grab a handrail.

If an inspector really wanted to give you trouble, they could also point to:

  • Difference in height of the bottom step.
  • Possibly (I can't tell from the picture) height of each step and/or ratio of length of step (run) to height (rise). I wouldn't be surprised if one or more of these dimensions is out of the usual specifications for residential stairs.

If the inspector really pushed, they could cause a lot more problems than just "add a railing". Are they right? Maybe, in which case there is the question of why the problem was not spotted earlier in the process. Are they wrong? Maybe, in which case it is a power play (if I don't find at least 3 things wrong at each place I go to, I'm not doing my job well).

But in the end, it doesn't matter. This is not a battle worth fighting, because a railing here is actually a good idea.

(My electrician has told me of stories where he fought the inspector and was able to cite code and win. On the other hand, he came prepared to add an extra ground rod that he knew my jurisdiction didn't require, in case the inspector demanded it when inspecting my heavy-up - he knew that the cost and time of installing an extra ground rod (which he didn't up needing - he'll use it on the next job) would be less than what it would take to fight with the inspector. You pick your battles based on what is worth fighting.)

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    The steps themselves will absolutely be to code when complete. The 2" thick cap still needs to be added to the step treads, which will bring that first step off the patio in line with the rest of them.
    – Matt Auger
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 16:54
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    Also, RE: "Are they wrong? Maybe, in which case it is a power play (if I don't find at least 3 things wrong at each place I go to, I'm not doing my job well)." - As the inspector was leaving, she mentioned she was heading to a job where this was going to be her SEVENTH visit because the contractor couldn't meet what she was looking for. Which doesn't give me a warm fuzzy moving forward....
    – Matt Auger
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 17:08
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    Sorry that this didn't get addressed during construction, but I have to agree with others here: A hand rail is a REALLY GOOD IDEA. you don't know who all will be using the stairs and what their physical limitations might be...they might need a hand rail to steady themselves. From a legal perspective, having a hand rail will reduce your liability, should anyone fall and get hurt. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 17:39
  • @GeorgeAnderson I agree, but look at it from the other way. I don't think it will reduce the liability from a fall, but not having one would definitely increase it.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 12:54
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    @CGCampbell I think it'd also hugely increase liability if someone, say, gets the inspectors notes in a courtcase (as a competent lawyer would go looking for). These are generally filed somewhere by whoever is employing the inspector, they're generally either publicly accessible or subpoena-able, and you're completely sunk if they make mention of a safety feature you haven't installed. Pushes the whole thing from "oh, a terrible accident, who could have forseen it?" to "just straight up negligence"
    – lupe
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 13:17
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Don't know if it's up to code where you are, but a rope handrail might be a simple option. They fit in with the rustic look, it'd be attachable simply to the rockface without too complex a curve. Some nice looking brass fittings for it, and it'd be a pretty simple thing to fit.

It'd also allow you to get it done fast, and then make a decision on something more permanent, if it ends up not being to your taste

As someone with a busted leg, I totally agree with your inspector, by the way - handrails are a basic accessibility feature if you've got guests over who might at all struggle. Could go down those stairs perfectly with a simple handrail, would be kind of terrifying without.

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The general consensus seems to be that if the stairs are not part of an attached deck or part of access/egress to/from the house (leading from street or driveway to door, for instance) then IRC does not apply as they are "landscaping" not part of the "residence."

The relationship of the patio to the house might cause some gray area, but a ground-level patio is not an elevated deck.

I envision the possibility that you could win, and then have 0.1 seconds at some point in the future to regret your win when you trip or stumble, before it becomes no longer your concern. Or it might not be you that trips or stumbles, and it would then be your concern for quite some agonizing time.

An alternative location for the handrail borrowed from some public steps would be a single rail right down the middle. Railings do not prevent all falls, but they do give people a fighting chance at preventing one.

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  • We talked about the railing down the middle, but ultimately from a design standpoint, we (read: my wife) would prefer the side rails. I'm just trying to figure out a way to attach them directly to the block face vs having to install posts in the steps.
    – Matt Auger
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 16:56
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    Happy wife... Any decent steel fabricator (and appropriate masonry mounts drilled into the block) should be able to manage that part.
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 17:00
  • @MattAuger gotta agree with your wife. 99% of the time a center rail isn't an issue at home (in a public location it's useful to divide up and down traffic), but the one time you need to move something oversized up or down you'll appreciate having the full width available. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 23:59
  • Go with a center rail ? Embed into a standalone underground footing above and below so it's not attached to the block work. Given the curving nature of the wall, probably far simpler (cheaper) design, installation, etc.. You can even make it removable (in case you need the full width to carry something up); put the footing below grade, use a flange onto the embedded footing and slip on the rail.
    – Ian W
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 23:47
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There isn't a choice but to add rails. That is one steep set of stairs with weird angles. And obviously the home expensive - lawsuit waiting to happen. The rails are going to be a bigger deal than you think. You cannot just screw these to the side.

And dealing with the inspector it doesn't really matter if this is beyond the grey area of the code. The inspector - especially for outside landscape issues - can use a general safety code for something like this. I don't know them off hand but there are several and I have been cited for them in my younger days.

Those blocks can take a ton of weight and pressure but they can not take blunt "wiggly" forces and your rail will come loose, your rail will fail or you will damage/move the blocks. So I wouldn't spend money attaching them to the side like your picture illustrates unless you want something short term. You are going to have to probably run a rail right against one of the walls and attached to the ground.

That way movement won't matter as much and the rail will remain safe for a long period of time. Landscape cinders are not good anchors and unless you pull those out and pour concrete in the ones you are using plus more concrete for an anchor that rail needs to go in the ground.

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Whether the Inspector is right or wrong, I agree with some of the other guys that a handrail would not only be functional but would add a clean and architectural element to the wall and break up the monolithic mass appearance. Down the middle, as your wife suggested and constructed perhaps of 3" stainless steel on 3 posts rising out of the steps.

Alternatively, throw in 3 temporary 2" galvanized posts buried in the fill as it is, Attach a wood 2x4 rail with carriage bolts, throw on most of your caps and fudge in the posts, then remove the rail after she's gone and finish up the caps.

But a steel or brass or copper handrail would look better. IMO

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  • Down the middle is fine... GIven you have other ways of getting big things in that part of the yard. Rail in the middle cuts that stairs in half.
    – DMoore
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 22:02

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