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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.
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Guardrail Specifications & Defects: requirements for guard railings at stair platforms, landing guard railings & other elevated walkways
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.
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.
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.
Railing & Handrail Strength & Failure Studies
Here we detail the requirements for Guards (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 Railings 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. Below right you can see that the guardrails are open and the connections at the post are rotted and loose. Below left 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.
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. 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, 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.
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.
Question: What is the Proper Distance From Handrail Bottom Edge to Top of the Floor:
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:
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.
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.
1003.3.3.11.3 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.
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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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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about stair landing, porch, deck, or balcony guard railings
Question: stair landing platform size correction
In your sketch entitled "Handrails and guards" of 2011, the accompanying text (Stair landing minimum size in direction of travel (<=36"))incorrectly uses the "<" ""less than" arrow instead of the ">" "greater than arrow". - David Gillis 9/21/2011
Question: limits of projection of handrailing into the stair walking space
I want to install a hand rail on an exterior staircase. Is there a code that will prevent me from installing the hand rail 6" out side of the staircase? - Joe Garcia 10/28/2011
Question: do I need railings on attic stairs or at stair top?
I am trying to find out if rails should be in attics - Anon 8/7/2012
An attic, that is an area not considered living space, in some jurisdictions has different rules for stairs and rails - depending on the local and higher level code authorities in your area.
But in any case, if there is an attic stairway with actual stairs, that is, not just a pull-down ladder or an open hatch and no stairs, and considering that attic access stairs are often steeper than recommended between occupied floors, for safety it would make perfect sense to be sure there was a railing along the stairway and also on the attic floor, a safety railing & balusters surrounding the stair top so someone in the attic doesn't step backwards and fall down the stair opening.
Questions & answers or comments about stair landing, porch, deck, or balcony guardrail codes, specifications, & design requirements.
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