While your local government's building regulations will ultimately influence the finer details, the International Building Code, the International Residential Code, and the standards established by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 all state that exterior stairs that are a required point of egress—in other words, any stair you must use to leave a room in an emergency—must be able to support your weight. This means that they must have a handrail to prevent you from falling.
The decision to include a handrail on your steps should be made based on their appearance as well as their function. For example, if you choose to add a handrail to provide visual appeal, it should be selected based on its compatibility with the rest of your home's decor. Also consider the material you'll be using for the handrail; plastic handrails are easy to clean but may not look good with certain types of wood or metal spindles. Finally, make sure the handrail you select is long enough to protect users of all sizes. A standard handrail should extend at least halfway up the step for optimal safety.
In addition to being required for safety reasons, handrails also provide a convenient way to assist people with limited mobility into a house. If your stairs are not equipped with a handrail, consider installing one after reviewing the requirements for your area's building codes. You can find rail materials online and at home improvement stores.
Stairs of various kinds have been used since ancient times, and since they are inherently dangerous, people have fallen on them, injuring or even killing themselves. Because stairwell accidents may result in serious damage or even death, construction rules for stairs and ramps are understandably stringent.
The National Safety Council estimates that approximately 100 people die each year from falls that could have been prevented by safety devices such as guardrails. About one-third of these deaths occur among people over 65 years old; about 20 percent of those deaths involve someone who lived in an assisted living facility. In addition, thousands more are injured. People who fall down stairs often break bones, cut muscles, and tear ligaments. Some suffer severe brain injuries when their skulls hit the floor. Others die from internal organ damage or blood loss.
The best protection against falls on stairs is a railing. Handholds should be provided at least every four feet to prevent falls. The tops of steps should be flat or slightly rounded to avoid injury if someone hits their head while walking up them. Narrow steps (less than 36 inches wide) are especially hazardous because it is easy to lose your balance.
If you are building or remodeling a home, stairs must be considered during planning stages. The height and design of stairs can affect how people navigate through their homes, so it's important to choose features that will make climbing and descending easier and safer.
To answer your concern, the code does not refer to the outside in steps, but it does need a guard rail if the distance from the completed floor or platform to the finished grade is greater than 30". They indicate that any stairwell with more than three risers (2 steps) will require a railing.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) provides information on its website about codes and standards related to stairs. The association's document "Stairway Design: Code Requirements for Stairs" can be found at http://www.nfpa.org/Documents/stairways/index.htm.
The International Building Code (IBC) requires guard rails on all open-sided stairways except where the distance between the finished floor or platform and the finished grade is less than 2 feet 6 inches (82 cm). Where there is no distance specified, then a guard rail is required wherever there is risk of someone being injured by falling off the stairway.
The IBC specifies four types of guard rails: straight, angled, curved, and composite (which are made up of straight sections attached to each other at right angles). Composite rails are recommended for use on stairs with more than three risers because they offer more security against people who might be tempted to climb over them. Angled and curved guards provide additional protection against people who might try to climb up or down the side of the stairway.
Some fundamental principles: an outdoor staircase can be erected in the south-east, facing east, in the south-west, facing west, in the northwest, facing north, and in the southwest, facing south. These are the only directions that make sense for a staircase; all other directions are wrong.
As with any other part of your home, use your best judgment when deciding where to place your stairs. Stairways should always be placed so that people will want to use them, but they don't have to be used daily to be useful. If you plan carefully, you should be able to install beautiful new stairs that will add charm to your home for many years to come.
The type of wood you choose for your stairs is important because it will influence the overall look and feel of your home. Options include cherry, maple, birch, hickory, pecan, sycamore, and walnut. The choice of wood will also affect its price tag. For example, wood such as mahogany is very expensive while pine is much cheaper. You should also consider how the wood will be treated before you buy it. Some woods, such as redwood, are naturally resistant to insects and other organisms that may damage wooden surfaces. Other types of wood, such as pine, need to be treated with a protective oil or stain to prevent this.