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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.

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 — an accident that isn’t particularly unusual, unfortunately, for women in their 90s.

Remodeling my mother’s bungalow wouldn’t be easy or affordable, so our family is faced with the usual…

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12 Comments

  1. Nola Sweats | | #1

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

  2. Malcolm Taylor | | #2

    Martin,

    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.
    https://www.dezeen.com/2020/02/19/house-in-takatsuki-tato-architects-split-level/

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #3

      Malcolm,
      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. Malcolm Taylor | | #4

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

    2. Gary | | #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. User avater GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #10

        Gary,
        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 | | #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 | | #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. Malcolm Taylor | | #7

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

    2. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #8

      Gary,
      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. Malcolm Taylor | | #9

        Martin,

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

      2. Gary | | #11

        Thanks Martin! I much appreciate my new awareness.

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