GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Musings of an Energy Nerd

Bad Stair Design Contributes to Falls

One-riser stairs are accidents waiting to happen

What were they thinking? The set for the Dick Van Dyke Show included a one-riser stair between the foyer and the living room. [Photo credit: CBS]

Old houses are quaint, with many quirky features rarely seen in new homes: attics or basements with low ceilings, for example, or odd-shaped closets in unexpected corners. Many old houses also feature stair hazards — hazards that are easily navigated by young people, but which turn into booby traps for the elderly.

Examples of stair hazards include stairs with high risers, stairs with narrow treads, stairs with bad lighting, stairs with widely spaced balusters, stairs with inconsistent riser heights, and stairs that lack graspable handrails. There’s another type of stair hazard that is rarely discussed, however: one-riser or two-riser stairs.

If you’re a baby boomer, like me, you grew up watching the Dick Van Dyke show — a TV show that prominently featured a hazardous one-riser stair between the foyer and the living room. In the show’s opening sequence, Dick Van Dyke successfully navigates the hazardous riser — and then trips over the ottoman.

So what’s more hazardous: poorly placed furniture or a one-riser stair? The answer is irrelevant, of course — since safety instruction is not the point of the Dick Van Dyke Show.

We all know that TV set designers ignore building codes. Most sitcom stairways would fail an inspection — for example, remember the Brady Bunch stairs, which totally lacked balusters? But in real life, one-riser stairs are no joke.

You call that a stair guard? Where are the balusters? What if little Cindy Brady falls off the side of the stairway?  [Photo credit: ABC]

Fall = hip fracture

My mother spends half the year in a quaint 100-year-old bungalow in Florida — a house that includes a hazardous one-riser stair. Her bungalow has a 7-inch difference in elevation between the kitchen and the back hallway. Last year, when navigating this riser, she fell and broke her hip —…

GBA Prime

This article is only available to GBA Prime Members

Sign up for a free trial and get instant access to this article as well as GBA’s complete library of premium articles and construction details.

Start Free Trial


  1. Nola_Sweats | | #1

    Those are fake Bradys! Imposters, all!! Maybe fake-Cindy doesn't deserve balusters.

  2. Expert Member


    Falls in houses are disturbingly common. I'm glad your mother has recovered. One of the sad statistics I saw was that very few seniors who are hospitalized with broken hips from falls ever leave hospital again.

    Stairs are a menace - but something that keeps eating at me is how architecture in other parts of the world seems to get by with what to us would be extremely dangerous railings and stairs. Houses in Greece and Italy often have unguarded stairs, and a lot of Japanese architecture looks to my eyes like death-traps - but somehow they get by. There must be a cultural element to the way we react to our built environment.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #3

      You're right -- when I'm traveling in other countries, I've seen lots of unguarded stairs, stairs without handrails, and stairs with inconsistent riser heights. The examples in your link are particularly scary.

      These types of stairs usually work for young people -- but they don't work as well for older people.

      Below are three photos. I'm not sure, but I think that the girl in the first photo is frowning because her sister is in the hospital.

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #4

        She may be frozen in fear.
        Or wishing her father ran a petting zoo, rather than practicing architecture.

    2. gary__b | | #5

      I think there's something to be said for irregularity and fostering caution. I understand the virtue of code requirements for stairs--the uniformity ensures that we all know what to expect and can safely use the stairs without thinking about it (or in en emergency). But it seems to me it also amplifies the hazard of a stair that deviates form the norm. We get so accustomed to not being careful on stairs that we have accidents on those that are different.

      So perhaps in those other places, odd stairs are so common that users apprach stairs carefully rather than just subconsciously stepping where there expect the next stair to be.

      1. GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #10

        You're undoubtedly right that most people approach an irregular stairway with more caution than they approach a regular stairway. If I'm hiking in the White Mountains, I am more careful about where I place my feet than I am when bounding up the stair of my own house.

        That said, I'm sure that it would be possible to conduct a safety study that compared the fall rate for regular stairs compared to irregular stairs -- and that the fall rate for irregular stairs would be higher. Residential designers have to consider things like fall rates, because danger is not desired by homeowners -- even if dangerous situations foster caution.

        1. gary__b | | #12

          I'd certainly not argue that irregular stairs are better head-to-head, but rather that in a locale where there are a large percentage of stair irregularities, falls rates on an individual set of irregular stairs may be comparatively lower. Thus, I'm thinking more like a study of fall rates on irregular stairs versus the percentage of irregular stairs in the community.

          But I agree it's simply academic. Notwithstanding the outlier pictures you posted, generally homeowners aren't going to want to take on that risk.

  3. gary__b | | #6

    Martin--Interesting read, but you never explained what the hazard is, exactly, with a one-riser stair. To someone unaccustomed to this as a hazard, like me, a single stair seems like a triviality. Is this because they don't have the regular safety features? Because they're atypical?

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #7

      It's the difficulty of recognition. They are hard to see.

    2. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #8

      Malcolm identified the chief problem -- a 7 inch difference in height is hard to recognize. If the eye is looking at something 10 feet away, a single riser may not be noticed until it is too late.

      If there is a three-riser stair with a handrail, most people recognize what's coming and think, "OK -- stairs ahead."

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #9


        Our code precludes one or two riser stairs - except for within dwelling units - so the problem persists.

      2. gary__b | | #11

        Thanks Martin! I much appreciate my new awareness.

  4. AdamPNW | | #13

    Reviving this thread with another single-riser stair design conundrum. We are starting our build soon, and my wife loves the traditional Japanese style entry-way (Genkan) where there is a single step up into the main area of the house. Or in our case, the entry area would be recessed ~4” down, leading to a zero threshold entry door.
    This step can serve many purposes, such as a place where people can remove shoes, a backstop to prevent the tracking of dirt into the main house, a transition space, etc. It seems navigable to me, but perhaps I’m being short-sighted.
    I’d like to hear more thoughts on the safety of the Genkan style entry.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #14


      All I can add is that I have a single 4" step in the path along the north side of my house. I have tripped on it a few times - and I built it.

    2. MartinHolladay | | #15

      I understand your wife's impulse. I went through a phase of wanting to integrate Japanese features into my house design; in fact, I wanted to buy some tatami for a Japanese-style room. Never happened, for a variety of reasons. Just about the only Japanese idea we retained was a strict "no shoes indoors" policy -- but I built a conventional mudroom instead of a genkan.

      It's your house, so build it how you want. But you might be glad if you omit the genkan, and go with a western-style mudroom, especially as you get older. In addition to the safety issue, the fact is that the older you get, the less enamored you'll be of steps.

    3. Expert Member
      Michael Maines | | #16

      Adam, I designed a genkan for clients in Maine a few years ago. We discussed a lot of options but settled on having a doorway and a change of flooring where the floor height changes, and bumping it out from the main house to keep floor framing simple (it was a modular home).

      1. lbutler | | #17

        Hi. My wife and I are having a small house designed with strong Japanese elements (including a room with tatami, a classic "L" shape with a veranda and inner garden, and a genkan). Much about a traditional Japanese house can be easily adapted for a PGH, which ours will be. This includes simple roofs for solar (our home will be net zero, all electric), large eaves, and small size. If you want a genkan, by all means include one. I believe the concerns about tripping are overblown. Unlike a height change in the middle or edge of a room (which is clearly a bad idea), the genkan is not something you might casually stumble into. It presents a clear entrance and exit boundary. In this regard, I'd suggest that 4" is too slight a height difference. Ours will be at least 6" inches below the floor, and no one will mistake it for anything other than what it is, and no one will walk into our house with their shoes on. Of course, if a wheel chair is in the future, then that is something to consider. But there is no question that a genkan is far less of a concern for old folks than stairs.

        1. Expert Member
          MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #18


          " I believe the concerns about tripping are overblown."

          I'm not sure belief is what you should found an argument about this on. Every safety organization that looks at stairs cautions against single risers. They are also one of the most litigated stair related injuries. Sure put one in if you want, but be clear eyed about the hazard they represent.

    4. AdamPNW | | #19

      Thanks for all the feedback. I can glimpse a future where I won’t want to be bothered by an extra step, let alone a broken hip.
      Perhaps I can find a alternate solution for stopping dirt from tracking into the house, such as an in-floor grate to trap dust, but easily vacuumed out.

Log in or become a member to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |