Every now and then, I fall up the stairs.

You read that right: I fall up the stairs. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s always at the same spot on the U-shaped staircase to my third-floor home office.

If you saw the stairs, you would notice a number of prominent features that are out of compliance with today’s code and might be considered a trip hazard.

To begin with, the treads are both too narrow and too shallow. And although the handrails are at the right height, they are affixed to just two of the three walls and are not continuous. The landing, too, is noncompliant. Ideally it would extend across the full width of the stairwell, but because of the tight space, it is split into four 45-degree treads that come to a point at the inside of the turn. It’s a common detail for the era, but unacceptable by today’s code.

While any of these obvious defects might cause someone to fall down the stairs, it is something much simpler though less obvious that occasionally causes me to trip on my way up these stairs: the top riser is higher than the one just below it, and the nosing at the finish floor protrudes slightly more than the others. I don’t know whether these features are the result of miscalculations or accumulated error, but the combination is deadly — particularly when ascending while holding a lunch plate balanced on a full beverage glass in one hand, and a bunch of paperwork in the other.

Carpenter’s Code

When I was learning the trade, I was taught the importance of sound structure and pleasing proportion, but no covenant between carpenter and a home’s occupants was more important than maintaining a uniform rise and run when cutting stair stringers.

The reasoning, confirmed by research, is that people don’t really look at stairs all that closely while ascending or descending. They quickly develop a rhythm, and even slight variations in dimension can interrupt the flow and cause a fall. Most critical are the top and bottom steps, where failure to account for finish floor thickness can create a hazard.

Back then, standards like this were established for the “average person,” but we now know there is no such thing. The houses we remodel need to accommodate people of varying height, width, age, ability, strength, and endurance. Things most of us take for granted — such as climbing a stair — become major obstacles to the very young, the very old, and the permanently or temporarily physically disabled.

Your clients are counting on you to anticipate today’s needs, but also tomorrow’s. Don’t trip them up.

This video gives a pretty clear picture of what I’m talking about when it comes to irregular stairs causing people to trip.

When stairs are easy to use, more people opt to use them. But you can really change behavior if you change the stairs.