Stair Wars : With accidents costing the U.S. $10 billion to $12 billion a year, safety experts are urging change in home stair design while builders decry cost.

A poor devil has ended his cares

At the foot of your rotten-runged rat-riddled stairs?

--Robert Browning

Frankly, stairs are risky business.

When Scarlett O'Hara tries to slap Rhett Butler in "Gone With the Wind," she stumbles and careens violently down the stairs. The pregnant Scarlett falls into a coma and suffers a miscarriage.

Stairs are also a slippery slope for politicians. President Gerald R. Ford's well-publicized missteps--at the inauguration of his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, in the Senate Chamber, and later disembarking Air Force One with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat--helped mold a perception of the nation's chief executive as a stumbling, bumbling world leader.

The fictional and famous aren't the only ones to be tripped up by stairs.

In a rush to get her children off to school this fall, Shirley Young of Los Angeles slipped down her carpeted stairs, skidding on her tailbone the last five steps. She slowly picked herself up, her pride bruised more than her posterior.

"I was lucky," Young said. "Now I approach stairs the same way I would a jagged cliff--with extreme caution."

In the past, stair accident victims have often blamed their own clumsiness or carelessness for their slips, trips and falls. Now, some safety experts say flawed stair design is at fault. Home builders argue, however, that tampering with the basic geometry of stairs is an arbitrary and unaffordable extravagance, unacceptable to price-conscious home buyers.

"There's no such thing as a safe stair. It doesn't exist," said John Templer, Regent's Professor of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of "The Staircase," a definitive, two-volume study published in 1992 on stair history, hazards, falls and designs.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that 1 million stair-related accidents occurred in 1990. A 1989 study by the National Safety Council reported that about 12,000 people die every year after a fall from one level to another or a fall on the same level.

The elderly are especially vulnerable to falls. In the home, 84% of those who die after a fall are over 65, according to the same 1989 National Safety Council study.

"I wonder how many homeowners, and even home builders, know that the stair is the most dangerous consumer product in the home," said Templer, adding that falls cause more than twice as many deaths annually as drownings, fires or burns.

Jake Pauls, a safety specialist with a Maryland consulting firm, estimated that stair accidents cost the United States $10 billion to $12 billion a year in terms of health care, lost wages and short- and long-term disability.

Despite such statistics, stair accidents remain a hidden epidemic, noted John Archea, a professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo, who co-wrote stair safety guidelines for the National Bureau of Standards.

"Unless we fall on them," he said, "or unless our daughter is getting married and we want to take a picture of her coming down the stairs and tossing her bouquet, stairs are pretty much in the background of our world."

That, however, could be changing.

Safety experts want the same codes regulating public access stairs--steps with a 7-inch vertical rise and 11-inch horizontal tread--applied to home stairs. These dimensions are based on a 1985 study of stairways in workplaces for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, of which Templer and Archea were the chief authors.

After videotaping and analyzing about 63,000 people going up and down stairs in a variety of settings, they found that fewer missteps result on gently sloping 7-11 stairs than occur on steeper, tighter stairs with tall risers and shallow treads.

By contrast, California stair codes set by the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), based in Whittier, require only an 8-inch maximum rise and a 9-inch minimum tread. Stair standards also differ in other areas of the country, reflecting regional codes and practices that are sometimes centuries old.

This lack of uniformity can lead literally to the downfall of stair users.

"I can't tell you how many accident cases I've investigated where an elderly grandparent visiting from the East falls on a stair that is different from back home," said Harvey Cohen, a safety consultant in La Mesa.

In the Northeast, the Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA) briefly adopted the 7-11 recommendation of safety experts, then overturned the new rule last September, under pressure from builders and their trade group, the National Assn. of Homebuilders (NAHB).

"We don't have a national building code in this country," Archea said. "We're the only country in the world that doesn't."

Added Templer: "There is no federal agency with a continuing mission to reduce building accidents, and the (building) industry seems to be too fragmented to undertake such a task."

Ron Burton, a code specialist at NAHB, disputes Templer's characterization of the building industry. He also challenges the basic research and cost estimates of safety experts advocating a conversion to a 7-11 standard.

According to Burton, studies of missteps and mishaps on stairs, quoted by safety experts, cannot be relied upon as predictors of falls and accident rates. "We don't find any place," he said, "where any researcher has shown that building a 7-11 stair is going to reduce stair accidents by this or that number."

Added Bill Bevacco, spokesman for the Stairway Manufacturers Assn., which represents 25 stair builders in the United States:

"Because we build stairs every day, we develop a feeling for what's safe and what's not. The so-called safety experts just cook up a lot of data that doesn't validate their claims."

Templer scoffs at the charge: "There isn't enough data that they like. The comparison to me here is the tobacco institute insisting that there is absolutely no proof that smoking causes lung cancer, and, of course, we cannot test human beings to destruction.

"We have sufficient evidence to know that certain stair characteristics are dangerous. Should we now build unsafe stairs and see if people actually fall on them?"

For builders, the issue isn't safety, it's cost.

NAHB estimates that the change to the 7-11 rule would extend stairways horizontally an additionally 4 to 5 feet, add 12 to 15 square feet per floor and increase hard construction costs about $3,000 for a new starter home.

Conversion to the 7-11 rule would also require builders to draw new plans, resubmit approvals and account for the land cost consequences of enlarging the basic building footprint.

Dan Ball, an architect for Maryland-based Ryland Homes, which builds in California, says its Founder Series model, a 20-foot-wide by 28-foot-deep "box" with 1,100 square feet, would expand to 1,280-square feet.

"You have just driven up the cost of that affordable unit," he says. "And you're hurting the people who can least afford it."

To accommodate 7-11 stairs without expanding the model's original size, Ball says he would have to take away a bathroom, closet or hallway.

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Doug Martin, a vice president of Lewis Homes in Upland, doubts whether home buyers would have to sacrifice a bathroom to install 7-11 stairs, but said adoption of the suggested standard would be a hardship for builders. "We have starter houses that are only 26 feet wide, so we already design our models about as tight as you can get," he said.

Pauls, a 7-11 proponent, complained that allowing an additional 15 square feet per floor is of far less consequence than the other space-eating features such as large kitchens, pantries and laundry rooms that have added about 500 square feet to the average size dwelling in recent decades.

"Generally, stairs are no better than--and often are inferior to--the stairs installed in unsophisticated dwellings of 1910 vintage," he said. "This makes no more sense than would the continued use of primitive, narrow tires of Model T vintage on modern cars."

Templer, who wears a size 12 shoe and says he has to angle his feet sideways on stairs with shallow treads, maintains that stairs, like doorways, have to be big enough to accommodate most users. "In houses, we do not provide doors that are only 5-foot-9 high--the average height of U.S. adults--although these smaller doors would be cheaper," he said.

Builders say their marketing surveys show that home buyers want walk-in closets, two bathrooms, a larger master bedroom and upgraded appliances, not 7-11 stairs. "Nobody says anything about stairs," Burton said.

Replied Archea: "That's precisely why stairs are the problem. They don't stand out. Yet, in fact, they are the most dangerous thing in the house.

"So, given the frequency and severity of stair injuries, and the fact that people aren't aware of them, is even more to the point why regulatory bodies should intervene on their behalf."

Templer said the public may not be sufficiently informed to choose safer stairs over some other amenity. He compares the reluctance of builders to add safer stairs to that of car manufacturers who resisted seat belts, air bags and other once-exotic safety features.

Burton said builders are concerned about safety "because we're the first ones to get hit with (legal) problems" and denied that the industry is hiding its head in the sand. But he argues that improving stair lighting, surfaces and handrails would do as much good as 7-11 stairs, and at a lower cost.

Safety experts, while conceding these improvements are important, say they are secondary to 7-11 stairs.

"You can go back and correct any other problems with stairs except the step geometry," Pauls said. "Once they're in, you can't rip them out without rebuilding the house. So you've got to get it right, right from the beginning."

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Del Webb, the nation's largest builder of housing for seniors, has avoided the stair controversy by constructing more than 35,000 single-story, stairless homes since 1960.

"Our understanding of the market is that stairs become somewhat of an obstacle for those 55 plus," said Ken Plonski, Webb's director of public and community relations.

But, if anything, more stairs are being built than ever. Builders working with soaring land values and shrinking lot sizes are building up, not out. Stairs are becoming not only a means to convey people from one level to another, but aesthetic devices for architects trying to dress up their starter models.

Mike Woodley, the chief architect for Kaufman & Broad Home Corp., California's largest home builder, is designing stairs with slight overhangs that effectively increase stair treads to about 10 inches. He also flairs the stair at the bottom to help widen it. These touches, he believes, create a dramatic and safe selling feature.

"We're always concerned about safety," he said, "but we have to look at the solution creatively."

The Stairway Manufacturers Assn. says it seeks compromise, not confrontation in resolving the 7-11 controversy.

"We're not going to let the safety experts bull their way through the codes," Bevacco said. "But we're willing to not only support testing, but do the testing and make whatever changes that will have a substantive effect on the reduction of injury accidents."

Dr. Liz McLaughlin, director of the San Francisco Injury Center, one of eight injury research sites operated by the Centers for Disease Control, also supports more stair studies.

"We don't have to get into polemics to say that stairs are hazardous," she said. "We know people are being injured on stairs. We just want more information on precisely what's causing people to fall."

After the BOCA conference in September, the code group took the unusual step of suspending all code changes for one year and set up an ad hoc committee to examine the 7-11 controversy in 1993. A slew of interested parties will be watching.

Said John Traw, vice president of codes and engineering for ICBO: "My suspicion is we haven't heard the last of this issue."

The Difference

In the past, stair accident victims have blamed themselves for falls. Now some safety experts say flawed design is at fault. Builders argue, however, that changing residential stairs is unacceptable to price-conscious home buyers.

Safety experts want the same codes regulating public access stairs--a 7 inch vertical rise and and 11 inch horizontal tread--applied to homes.

California stair codes set by the International Conference of Building Officials require only an 8 inch maximum rise and a 9 inch minimum tread.

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