Closed riser stairs Maria Mitchell Observatory Vassar College (C) Daniel Friedman Stair & Rail Design for Seniors

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Stair design specifications for older adults or for people with limited mobility:

This article lists safety features and optimal stairway designs for older building occupants. These same specifications should assist anyone who has limited ability to climb stairs such as people suffering from arthritis.

Page top photo: an older stair-user at Portofino near Genoa, Italy, facing a steep climb, angled stairs, and an open stair guard is nonetheless making use of a secure handrailing.

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Optimum Stair Riser Height for Seniors & People with Limited Stair Climbing Ability

Theoretical stair design (C) Daniel FriedmanThis article discusses stair step designs for people who have trouble ascending or descending stairways.

What about building long stair runs with steps each of which has a very low riser height?

Here we discuss stair options for easy-climbing stairs and we point out where some low-riser step hazards may be lurking along the stairway.

Stair falls are particularly dangerous for the elderly or for others with limited mobility. But does this mean that we should simply eliminate stairs, replacing them with ramps or stairway chair lifts?

People who need or prefer those options should see RAMPS, ACCESS and also STAIRWAY CHAIR LIFTS.

But there are also health benefits from using stairs, leading expert sources to avoid recommending simply stopping using stairways as we illustrate with the following excerpt from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Falls on stairs can be a major threat to health, independence and confidence. The physical consequences can be serious, including soft-tissue damage and broken bones — especially hips.

Other serious consequences — particularly for older people — can be the psychological effects resulting from a fall such as lowered confidence and a loss of a feeling of safety, which further reduces health, mobility and activity. Many people never fully recover from the consequences of a fall. ...

There can be health benefits to using stairs. According to Health Canada’s Stairway to Health Program, activities like climbing stairs significantly contribute to the 30 minutes of physical activity we all need every day.

Stair climbing increases leg power and may be important in helping elderly people reduce the risk of injury from falls.

Your doctor can best advise you if you have special health problems that might limit or even prevent you from using stairs. However, it does mean always being aware that stairs can be risky and knowing how to reduce the risks. - CMHC (2015)

Reader Question: what are the best stair dimensions for people with physical limitations or for seniors

Stair user at Mass MOCA (C) Daniel Friedman at InspectApedia.com28 April 2015 Cynthia Johnson said:

What are the best dimensions for seniors with physical limitations i.e. Rheumatoid Arthritis?


Excellent question, Cynthia. Experts suggest that for more physically limited people the best way avoid falls is to seek living accommodations on a single floor.

Affi et als (2014 and earlier) have weighted the contributions of various stair features to the risk of a stair fall, considering for example, straight versus turned stairways, with or without landings, number of steps, handrail design, lighting specifications, and step design specifications (using a tread depth of 269mm and a riser height of 174mm with a 40 mm tread nosing in a case example to state various risk contributors.

Afifi et als (2013 & 2014) specifically investigated staircase design for older adults.

Best step riser height for seniors

The authors examined riser heights between 152mm (5.98 in) and 190 mm (7.48 in). These riser heights or "step rise heights" appear to be the optimal range in riser height.

Best going depth or tread depth for stair treads for seniors

The "going depth" or "tread depth" which I describe as distance from stair nose face to riser face was considered optimal at 280 mm to 330 mm. The authors cited < 280mm and > 330 mm as "worst-case" scenarios, but I suggest that for some situations such as exterior stairs where much long going depths are feasible those data might change.

For an interior stairway, very long going depth dimensions are not practical because the total stair run becomes longer than will fit in most indoor spaces.

Furthermore the cost of converting an existing set of steps each having a 7-inch rise into a set of stair steps each with a 3.5" rise would not only double the run length of the stairway but it would be very costly. In some cases low-rise steps with intermediate landing platforms might fit into a building space but again, the cost of such a change is probably much greater than the addition of a stairway chair lift.

Interestingly, recent research by Donath et als (2013) suggests that stair climbing can make an important contribution to the health, fitness, balance and heart condition of seniors.

Beyond that I've seen with my own mom as well as in the literature, that the smallest irregularity in a walking surface, more than about 1/8", can form a trip and fall hazard. Indeed falls the major source of injuries in most countries (though traffic accidents claim more lives) and the major source of lost work time among the working population.

Gunatilaka (2005) in recommending stair code improvements for Australia, focused on falls in the home and found falls causing 16% of all unintentional deaths (2002) and 23% of hospital admissions.

Critical factors in safe stair design for seniors or people with limited mobility

Non-slip color cue marking on steps at the FDR Estate a National Park property in Hyde Park NY (C) Daniel Friedman at InspectApedia.comBeginning at STAIR DIMENSIONS, WIDTH, HEIGHT we describe stair codes, construction, and design specifications.

But Affi et als in a recent work (2014) cite an exhaustive if not exhausting list of stair features that are considered in assessing the safety of a stairway, from which we excerpt and adapt for cases where stairs are unavoidable and we are trying to both make stairs easy to climb and to minimize trip hazards we want first to pay attention to the following items.

  1. Geometric design of the stairway for seniors: stair shape (straight vs circular or composite, number of steps per flight).

    Stair cases may be straight, U-shaped, curved or spiral (in my opinion high risk because of irregular tread shape and reduced walking area as well as sometimes forcing a user to walk away from a handrail) or making a partial or complete turn; landings may be present or omitted.
  2. Number of steps in the stairway: both long stair flights (more than 12 steps) and short stair flights (less than 6 steps) increase the risk of falling.

    Optimal number of steps is 10-12 steps in the stair flight. Afifi (2014).

    Avoid long stair runs without resting landings


  3. Stairway step design for seniors and other people of limited mobility: Optimal stair tread depth (going distance) and riser height were cited above as
    • Optimal tread depth: 280 mm (11 in) to 330 mm (13 in). The U.S. ADA excludes the stair nose in this dimension and measures tread depth from riser to riser.
    • Optimal riser height: 152mm (5.98 in) and 190 mm (7.48 in)
    • Use rounded stair nosing between 15mm and 25mm.

    • Provide uniform tread dimensions in all respects: riser height, tread depth, levelness. See Jackson (1995).

    • If you are building low-rise or short riser height steps to make steps easy to climb, be sure that the stair tread depth is sufficient to avoid awkward walking.

  4. Stairway lighting: proper lighting (for seniors and others)  in the stairways is not only required in all model building codes, but is critical for elder-safety.

    Illumination of stairways used by older people should be at least 300-lux according to the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA) and illumination must be consistent. The proper location of light switches is also very important.

    Light switches must be located far enough from the stairway as to be safely accessible and must be able to turn lights on and off from both stair top and bottom (as is required by stair codes). See Kim (2009)

  1. Handrailing & Grab-Rail design for seniors: secure, continuous, graspable handrailings, at the proper height.

ADA grab bars for water closets (toilets) specifications  at

[Click to enlarge any image]

Figure 29 Grab Bars at Water Closets.

Figure 29(a) Back Wall.

A 36 inches (915 mm) minimum length grab bar, mounted 33-36 inches (840-915 mm) above the finish floor, is required behind the water closet.

The grab bar must extend at least 12 inches (305 mm) from the centerline of the water closet toward the side wall and at least 24 inches (610 mm) from the centerline of the water closet toward the open side.

Figure 29(b) Side Wall.

A 42 inches (1065 mm) minimum length grab bar is required on the side wall, spaced a maximum of 12 inches (305 mm) from the back wall and extending a minimum of 54 inches (1370 mm) from the back wall at a height of 33-36 inches (840-915 mm).

The toilet paper dispenser shall be mounted below the grab bar at a minimum height of 19 inches (485 mm). The height of the toilet seat shall be 17 to 19 inches (430 - 485 mm) above the finished floor.


  1. Clear visual cues of changes in walking surface help avoid trip hazards by making the presence of steps between rooms very apparent.
  2. Glow-in-dark Non-slip tape marks edge of otherwise hard-to-see stair step edges (C) Daniel Friedman

    Above: we added glow-in-the-dark non-slip stair tread tape placed along the front edge of these interior stairs made of brick.

    Particularly because the upper walking surface is identically-colored brick, at night in low light it is difficult to see the edge of the individual steps.

  3. Assure that walking surfaces are not slippery.


With those basics in place, if people using a stair have trouble with tall treads we could, if space permits, use a shorter rise, even just 3-inches.

BUT to do so every stair tread also has to be made longer (or "deeper" in the direction of travel). That is, we can't shorten the rise without making the tread depth greater as well. Otherwise the stairs are still a trip hazard.


A lot of research has been done into optimal stair tread design. Interestingly the optimum stair design for ascending can be different from descending, so every stair design will have to compromise those theories.

Optimal stair design for seniors or physically-limited building occupants

Steep climb up ancient stairs in Oxaca (C) Daniel Friedman at InspectApedia.comU.S. ADA Stair & Railing Specifications vs Easy-Climbing Stairs

Photo: a sign points the way up steep, high-rise and uneven-rise but ancient pyramid steps at Atzompa in Oxaca, Mexico near the more popular Monte Alban.

At ADA STAIR & RAIL SPECIFICATIONS [web article] we cite and discuss the U.S. ADA specifications for stairs and railings.

There you will see that the ADA section 4.9 "Stairs" does not discuss short riser stair steps or "easily-climbable stairs"..

Reader Question: how to build steps for people who have trouble climbing stairs

This question appeared originally at STAIR RISE & RUN CALCULATIONS.

(June 14, 2015) Anonymous said:

I am ask to build steps for an older couple, one already has a hip replacement an the other getting one done, my steps hieght is three feet an the distence is five feet they need lower risers. Can someone tell what the dimensions would be?

Reply: design the stair with a long run, deep treads, shorter rise, and secure handrailings


You can make short rise steps by making the stairway run longer.

For example if you have a total rise of five feet and you want a 3-inch step rise you'd divide (5x12=60) 60 inches by 3 inches to get 20 steps that you'd need to build to climb up five feet.

Of course you'll want to make the stair treads deeper front-to back to make such short rise steps safe and comfortable.

And secure hand railings on both sides of the stairs will be important for folks for whom stairs are difficult.

Watch out: when making stair treads "deeper" - that's increasing the distance from the stair tread nose to the stair riser - you need to avoid creating a halting-walk stairway trip and fall hazard. Simply making an 11-inch deep tread into an 18" deep tread in order to reduce the stair riser height can actually (in my OPINION) increase the risk of falling by making the foot placement difficult when descending the stairs. In that case the treads need to be deep enough to avoid a "halting walking step."



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