Guardrail collapse led to injury (C) Daniel Friedman Guardrails: Guide to Guard Railing Codes, Specifications, Heights, Construction & Inspection

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Guard railing height & other specifications and building codes:

Guidelines for building guardrails on balconies, decks, landings, stair landings: this document provides building code specifications, sketches, photographs, and examples of defects used in inspecting indoor or outdoor guards or guard railings required at stairway landings, porches, decks, walkways, balconies.

Our page top photo shows a cable type guardrail that proved irresistable to children who found that it was tempting to climb, stretch and hang upon. Horizontal guards are easily climbable.

We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.

Guardrail Specifications & Defects: requirements for guard railings at stair platforms, landing guard railings & other elevated walkways

Guardrail at stasir top (C) Daniel FriedmanGuardrail guide: stair landing, porch, deck & walkway guardrail specifications & codes: height, dimensions, spacing, construction, photos & sketches of guardrail defects & safety hazards.

Here we discuss: GUARDRAIL HEIGHT Requirements; DEFINITION of a guardrail compared to a stair rail & handrail - a quick guide to railing types; BALUSTER Spacing & Opening Requirements s for Guards & Railings; SPACE BETWEEN Balcony Handrail Bottom Segment & Top Surface of Flooring; BUILDING CODES Specifications for Guard Railing Requirements.

Article Series Contents

Definition of a guardrail compared to a stair rail & handrail - a quick guide to railing types

  1. A guardrail is a safety railing or barrier located along a horizontal surface such as a balcony, deck, or porch. Details

    are at GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS - this article. A guardrail is shown by the red arrows in our photo at left.
  2. A stair rail or stair guard is a safety railing or barrier located along the open side(s) of a stairway. Details

  3. A handrailing or stair railing is installed along one or both sides of an ascending / descending stairway, to provide a safe grasping surface to reduce fall injuries, and where stairways are open, to prevent falls off of the side of the stairs.

    But watch out: many people use these terms interchangeably. The railing height and graspability issues are different between guardrails and handrails. Details


Detailed definitions of these three terms are at RAILING CODES & SPECIFICATIONS.

Exterior railings and guardrails for decks & porches are detailed at RAILINGS, DECK & PORCH.

Guardrails are also installed (sometimes) at other site features such as retaining walls.

Guardrail Height Requirements Under Various Building Codes & Standards

Guardrail collapse led to injury (C) Daniel Friedman

Our photo at left illustrates the addition of a handrailing (blue arrow) placed lower than the top of the stair guardrail (red arrow) at an installation that we photographed at the CIA, Hyde Park, NY.

Exceptions to the 42-inch rule for stair guards are allowed when the top of the stair guard is also serving as a handrailing. But as our photo (above left) illustrates, it's also feasible to provide both a 42-inch stair guard and include a 34-inch high handrailing along the stairs.

Guards shall be located along open-sided walking surfaces, stairways, ramps and landings that are located more than 30” above the floor or grade below.

Guards shall form a protective barrier not less than 42” high, except when top rail also serves as a handrail, guard height shall not be less than 34.” - Alameda CA Residential Stairway, Handrail, and Guardrail Minimum Code Requirements.

Guardrail, Stair Rail & Handrail Strength Requirements - the 200 pound load criteron & others

Deer Net deck rail (C) Daniel Friedman

For full details on this topic please see GUARDRAIL & HANDRAIL STRENGTH. Excerpts are below.

The railing must be strong enough to resist horizontal loads from people leaning on it.

The 2000 IRC (IRC Table R301.5) and other typical building codes requires that a guardrail or a handdrail be able to resist a 200-pound concentrated load applied along the top in any direction, while some local codes still in effect specify a smaller load of 20 pounds per linear foot.

After an above-ground swimming pool was removed, the owners continued to use the deck in our photo (left). Deer netting was installed across the open edge of the deck - and it worked fine until someone fell thorough it. The torn remains of the deer netting can be seen on the left side of this photograph.

Continuing from from Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction:

Under the IRC, the infill or balusters must resist a concentrated horizontal load of 50 pounds applied to a square foot area.

The baluster requirement is easily met with standard fastening techniques, but meeting the IRC guardrail requirement is difficult without adding steel hardware. The majority of residential decks, which rely on notched posts lag-screwed into the band joist, do not meet the 200-pound requirement.


Examples & Photos of Stair Platform or Guard Railing Defects at Landings, Decks, Balconies

Low rail on stair landing (C) Daniel Friedman

Stairway Lighting requirements (C) Carson Dunlop Associates

Stair Landings are required at top and bottom (with exceptions at top of interior stairs or in garage if door swings in, away from the stairs)

Here we detail the requirements for GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS (railings on landings and open hallways, porches, screened porches, balconies that are more than 30" above floors or grade).

For details of guardrail baluster spacing and design see Balusters. For more details about balusters (vertical spindles in railing construction) see stairway railing details

at RAILING CODES & SPECIFICATIONS for a discussion of safety barriers along stairs.

Examples of Stair Platform or Landing Defects

Sketch above is provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates.

More Stair Railing & Guardrail Defects - too short, too loose and wobbly, too open, rotted connections

Our photographs just below show some common stair and guardrailing defects.

Belowour photo shows that this is a rooftop balcony from which a fall could result in serious injury. A repairman had "glued" these joints with caulk, not a reliable nor safe job.

Guardrail unsafe due to rot (C) Daniel Friedman

Below you can see that the guardrails are open and the connections at the post are rotted and loose.

Guardrail unsafe due to rot (C) Daniel Friedman

We suggested trying pre-drilling and trim screws to secure every baluster to the floor more soundly. If that repair was not possible or did not work, whidh is likely if the wood is rotted, the railing might need to be disassembled and reinstalled properly.

The second guardrail photograph (below right) was taken at the top of an attic stairwell. The rail was open, a child hazard. Our opinion is also that horizontal railing members invite children to climb, and perhaps fall. Vertical balusters were needed. This rail, too, was a bit too short.

Our photographs below show two guardrail hazards. At below left the railing is 30 1/2" above the floor surface - too short for modern safety standards, though when the home was built in 1935, perhaps occupants were shorter.

This railing was also very loose, needing extensive repair for safety.

Guardrail unsafe (C) Daniel Friedman

Below is a too-short and too-open home-made hybrid guardrail using horizontal wood (easily climbed) and wire cables (easily climbed, not sufficiently tensioned, too open).

Guardrail unsafe (C) Daniel Friedman

This guardrailing is unsafe.

Baluster Spacing & Opening Requirements for Guards & Railings

Stairway Lighting requirements (C) Carson Dunlop Associates

Stairway handrail & stair balusters & guard details are in this sketch.

Balusters (vertical posts comprising the barrier in guards and railings)

Hand-railing heights are given:

Sketch courtesy Carson Dunlop Associates.

Proper Space Between Balcony Handrail Bottom Segment & Top Surface of Flooring

Question: What is the Proper Distance From Handrail Bottom Edge to Top of the Floor:

Railing demonstration and clearances Menards Duluty MN (C) Daniel Friedman

My husband and I are building a handrail for a balcony and queried a number of places on this site to determine the minimum distance from bottom of railing to floor (our design is similar to the many pictures shown where the distance from top and bottom of railing including baluster is less than the minimum 36" — railing does not go all the way to the floor).

Dimensions that are absolutely referenced are the distance between balusters horizontally. Have we missed something? - Joan Florian


The space you are asking about, between the bottom horizontal member of a guard railing and the floor surface of the balcony or walkway is illustrated by the red arrow in our photo at above-left.

In addition to a safe height to avoid a fall, the 4" spacing between balusters, which is intended to avoid a head trap for children, would apply to the space between the rail bottom and the floor top surface as well. You can make that space less than 4", but we wouldn't make it more than that.

We found that spaces smaller than 4" can also be a different sort of trap. We investigated a case in which a child got his foot stuck between balusters that were less than 4" apart. The risk is less, since a fall and strangulation are not a concern.

Here's an example building code citation for the 4-inch rule applicable to guardrails:

In public educational facilities, any vertical drop of 18 inches or more shall be protected by a wall or guardrail a minimum of 42 inches in height.

Guardrails shall have intermediate rails or ornamental pattern such that a 4-inch diameter sphere cannot pass through any opening up to a height of 34 inches. - Florida Building Code Section 1013.1 Guards. See Sections 423.10.2.4 and 1012.3, Florida Building Code, for further information.

Railing demonstration and clearances Menards Duluty MN (C) Daniel Friedman

We responded to a hysterical telephone call, dashed across town to rescue the youngster, only to find that moments before our arrival, the child, (godson Joshua Waterman) had, on his own, turned his foot so that he could extricate himself without further adult intervention.

It was probably the panic of feeling "stuck" that had trapped Josh in the first place.

To avoid a small-child foot-trap between the guardrail bottom (or stair railing bottom) and the floor surface, keep the opening at 4", or reduce it to 2" between the bottom edge of the guardrail and the top of the floor surface.

Incidentally, where glazing is used in guards and guardrailings (such as our photograph above), including structural baluster panels and non-structural in-fill panels, regardless of the area or height above a walking surface, safety glazing is required. - E.g. Florida building Code 2406.3 Hazardous Locations, Item No. 8.

Citations from Building Codes Specifying Guard Railing Requirements

Sample excerpts of sources which a building code compliance inspector would be expected to cite in support of requiring a properly-designed, properly-secured guard rail include but are not limited to the citations below.

International Building Code 2000 (BOCA, ICBO, SBCCI)

1003.3.3.4 Stairway landings. 

There shall be a floor or landing at the top and bottom of each stairway.

The width of landings shall not be less than the width of stairways they serve.

Every landing shall have a minimum dimension measured in the direction of travel equal to the width of the stairway. Such dimension need not exceed 48 inches (1219 mm) where the stairway has a straight run.

1003. Handrail grasp ability.

 Handrails with a circular cross section shall have an outside diameter of at least 1.25 inches (32 mm) and not greater than 2 inches (51 mm) or shall provide equivalent grasp ability.

If the handrail is not circular, it shall have a perimeter dimension of at least 4 inches (102 mm) and not greater than 6.25 inches (159 mm) with a maximum cross-section dimension of 2.25 inches (57 mm). Edges shall have a minimum radius of 0.125 inch (3.2 mm).

1607.7 Loads on Handrails, guards, grab bars and vehicle barriers

1607.7.1.1 Concentrated Load. 

Handrail assemblies and guards shall be able to resist a single concentrated load of 200 pounds (0.89kN), applied in any direction at any point along the top, and have attachment devices and supporting structure to transfer this loading to appropriate structural elements of the building.

1607.7.1.2 Components.

 Intermediate rails (all those except the handrail), balusters and panel fillers shall be designed to withstand a horizontally applied normal load of 50 pounds (0.22 kN) on an area not to exceed one square foot (305mm2) including openings and space between rails.

BOCA National Property Maintenance Code 1993: 

PM-305.5 Stairs and railings: all interior stairs and railings shall be maintained in sound condition and good repair.

Commentary: Handrails, treads and risers must be structurally sound, firmly attached to the structure, and properly maintained to perform their intended function safely. During an inspection the code official should inspect all stringers, risers, treads, and handrails.

PM-305.6 Handrails and guards: Every handrail and guard shall be firmly fastened and capable of supporting normally imposed loads and shall be maintained in good condition.

Commentary: This section provides for the safety and maintenance of handrails and guards. See Section PM-702.9 for additional requirements.

PM-702.9 Stairways, handrails and guards: Every exterior and interior flight of stairs having more than four risers, and every open portion of a stair, landing or balcony which is more than 30 inches (762mm) high, nor more than 42 inches (1067mm) high, measured vertically above the nosing of the tread or above the finished floor of the landing or walking surfaces. Guards shall be not less than 30 inches (762mm) high above the floor of the landing or balcony.

Commentary: Handrails are required on all stairs more than four risers in height. Handrails cannot be less than 30 inches nor more than 42 inches above the nosing of the treads (see Figure PM-702.9).

Guards are required on the open side of stairs and on landings and balconies which are more than 30 inches above the floor or grade below.

The guard must be at least 30 inches above the floor of the landing or balcony. Guards are to contain intermediate rails, balusters or other construction to reduce the chance of an adult or child from falling through the guard.

If the guard is missing some intermediate rails or balustrades, it is recommended that the guard be repaired to its original condition if it will provide protection equivalent to the protection it provided when originally constructed.

General References for Guardrailing Codes

Fradera building, Havana Cuba, M. Rotllant ca 1910

Photo: guardrailings on a building in Havana, Cuba in 2013, courtesy of an reader. [Click to enlarge any image]

The ICC has free, limited, live, online access to some of the latest codes, but I couldn't find the free link for IRC immediately.

Shown at left, low balcony guardrailings at the Fradera building (1910) in Havana.

At below left are balcony, facade, and guardrail restoration work in Havana ongoing in 2012.

IHavana restoration of buildings 2012

In-Situ Testing of Guardrails & Handrails

Full Text of IRC Building Codes 2006, 2012

The ICC has free, limited, live, online access to some of the latest codes, but I couldn't find the free link for IRC immediately.

Other Example Guardrailing Codes

Testing Method References for Guardrailing Codes

Fradera building, Havana Cuba, M. Rotllant ca 1910

Shown at left, low balcony guardrailings at the Fradera building (1910) in Havana.

At below left are balcony, facade, and guardrail restoration work in Havana ongoing in 2012.

IHavana restoration of buildings 2012

In-Situ Testing of Guardrails & Handrails

Railing & Handrail Strength & Failure Studies


Continue reading at GUARDRAILINGS, BEST PRACTICES or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see BUILDING CODE DOWNLOADS - free downloadable PDF files of building codes & standards

Or see GUARDRAIL on BALCONY, DECK, LANDING CODE FAQs - questions and answers posted originally on this page

Or see these

Guardrail / Railing Articles

Suggested citation for this web page

GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS at - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.


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