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Guardrails Best Practices for Decks & Porches: this article describes recommended construction practices for deck safety, deck railing requirements, guard railing construction and building codes, and critical safe-construction details for deck and porch rails, guardrails, and exterior stair guard railings and handrails.
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Deck Railing & Guard railing Code Requirements
Our photos (above) show an attractive railing with horizontal cables intended to permit a nice view of the Brooklyn NY skyline. We also demonstrate how easily the cables can be separated as well as how attractive this guard railing is to children. See Cable Railings & Guardrails for details about cable type guard rails or "cable railings" such as shown above.
As detailed in Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction: The International Residential Code (IRC) requires a minimum 36-inch-high guardrail for all decks, balconies, or screened enclosures more than 30 inches off the ground. For child safety, the balusters or other decorative infill must be spaced less than 4 inches apart (a 4-inch-diameter ball should not pass between the balusters).
Deck Railing (Guardrail) Strength Requirements
Post Connections for Deck or Porch Railings
Wood Deck or Porch Railings
The top rail for a guardrail can be a 2x6 either flat (photo at left) or on edge. Use the longest pieces you can find—a continuous railing is best. However for a hand railing on stairs, both flat and vertical 2x lumber are unsafe and violate good stair railing design because they cannot be grasped during a fall.
Manufactured Deck or Porch Railings
-- Adapted with permission from Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction.
Also see DECK COLLAPSE Case Study (collapse of a new code-approved deck) and DECK FLASHING LEAKS, ROT Case Study for an example of an older deck with rot and collapse due to improper construction and missing building flashing.
Question: can seating serve as a protective safety railing at decks, porches, or outdoors near a high retaining wall?
Subject: 30" railing: If there is a seat wall and a planter between an upper level terrace and a retaining wall with a height greater than 30”, can the railing be eliminated? Please see attached sketch. - M.B.
Reply: OPINION about using seating as a safety barrier on decks, porches, or outdoor surfaces near retaining walls
I have certainly seen a number of high decks (not quite your case) that had continuous seating at the perimeter and no other railings. I expect that ultimately the building code compliance inspector will decide the issue locally.
A concern might be that even though the seating can prevent someone from stumbling and falling off of the raised area, it would not stop a child from climbing right over - unless there were seat backs were high enough and made of vertical balusters rather than the typical horizontal materials.
Taking a look at your sketch (above left), as drawn, the same concept seems to apply: you may have protection against an adult trip and fall over the retaining wall provided by some space (say six feet) between the "seat wall" and the "planter wall" (a retaining wall). But this design does not provide child safety protection nor protection for someone walking in or working in that inner space (having stepped over the seat wall).
If this area is residential occupied outdoor space, I would be surprised if a building code inspection would accept the design you show: the "seat wall" is just 18" high, easily climbed over by a child; there is no safety railing at the planter wall above the dropoff - or are you planning to install a tall, impenetrable solid-growth hedge in the space where you show a shrub? That might be an acceptable alternative.
Typical building codes including local code interpretations that address the question of need for safety railings near high retaining walls give some latitude to the local building inspector.
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A complete guide to building decks, porches, & exterior stairs can be found at Related Topics above. Key articles include:
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