Twice a year or so, I receive letters to the editor about handrails. These letters gently or not so gently reproach us for the projects we run without rails where the codebook claims they should be. The pace of those letters just picked up with the publication of our July cover photo of David Salmela. He's pictured sitting on a staircase he designed that is—you guessed it—sans banister. I suppose it's lucky his shoes have good traction. To those letter writers, I have a confession: My house has a staircase without handrails too.
I didn't choose this fate for myself, my family, or my visitors, but I have lived with it since I bought the house a few years back. The staircase was part of the architect–owner's renovation about 18 years ago that opened up the bungalow to sightlines, light, and natural ventilation. It's a focal point—the first dramatic thing you see as you walk in the front door. Not only is it free of handrails, it's open on three of its four sides and curves as it climbs up to the second floor. Guests in my house make it upstairs for the grand tour with few complaints, but they do pause and gasp before heading back down. From this spot, the stair bends open to the first floor in a vertiginous arabesque. My 77-year-old father asks me almost monthly when I'm going to “do something about that staircase.”
The thing is, I've gotten used to it. So have my two dogs; they simply hug the single wall as they scamper up and down. They love to spread out on the stairs, front paws dangling off the edge of the treads. I have a photo of them and my two cats, each occupying a different step, regally surveying their shared domain.
So, I'm not sure when, or if, I'm going to “do something” about the stair. And I'm not certain I should banish work from these pages that omits the code-compliant detail. As long as both architect and client are aware and accepting of the risks, I'm inclined to show the aesthetically felicitous results of this conspiracy. Our world is already so scrutinized and proscribed by those who wish to save us from ourselves and each other, I'll carve out a little right to privacy in these pages. Hush, hush—just between us, here's what goes on in some very custom homes.
That said, accessibility is a serious matter. I certainly cannot age in place in my house, for reasons that are much more difficult and expensive to fix than installing a handrail. My bathrooms have tubs, not showers; the doorways to my kitchen aren't wide enough for a wheelchair; there's no entrance to my house that's free of steps.
As the baby boomers age, living longer and with more chronic illnesses than any generation before them, we'll find most of our single-family housing stock woefully underdesigned. We're simply not facing the truth about the future. Just a few tweaks—a different decision here and there at the design stage—can mean the difference between a house for some and one for all. This kind of planning meets “special needs” right now, but within the next few decades we'll confront a truly universal need for accessible design.
Comments? Call: 202.736. 3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: email@example.com.