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Residential Building Codes for Deck Railings

Pool Deck Railings and Safety


Picking up from where we left off on Page 2, I continue my interview with Lawrence Winterburn. On this page, Lawrence turns to the issue of residential building codes for deck railings.

Q: What specifications for deck railings are dictated by the local residential building codes you have encountered in your projects?

A: Many building departments are enforcing very strict specifications when it comes to deck railings -- and local home inspectors are normally well-versed in the local specifications. When they are faced with interpretive examination as to whether a certain deck railing is climbable or not, they typically defer to a local professional engineer for a stamped drawing. We are starting to have our own stamp-worthy details for all our locations.

Most specify that the old colonial spindles are illegal -- at the smallest turning they are only ¾" thick and don't meet strength standards for deck railings. They try to offer standard details from the national building code, but whenever something strange happens they change the rules to address the need. It sure would be nice for all the small building departments to communicate with a governing board to create an online database of specifications and solutions. I think we are a few years away from that. In short, drop by your local building department and ask for any building codes relating to deck railings that they have locally. You may be surprised to find that decks are hands-off in your local area with no specified restrictions.

Q: Also, do local residential building codes sometimes dictate the height of deck railings?

A: I've seen height specifications for deck railings range between 32" and 48". They need to not be climbable; i.e., you can't get a foothold to climb over. They need to meet certain strength ratings but, typically, if a 300-lb man were to fall against the deck railing, it should not move more than 1".

Q: And finally, do local residential building codes also determine the spacing between the balusters (rungs) of deck railings?

A: Space between balusters in most areas is max 3.5" and is measured with a 3 ½" ball.

Q: On a related subject, do residential building codes present different specifications for the deck railings around pool decking?

A: Absolutely -- entirely different specifications for pool deck railings, and it is different in every area. Some of these locally created bylaws are terribly worded and are open to interpretation by poorly trained clerks. You may be surprised to find that there is no appeal process in place -- the clerks rule pool fences. You are better off to submit drawings for approval ahead of time when you plan on doing something different than the norm.

Q: Residential building codes are one thing but, in your projects, have you ever encountered regulations pertaining to deck railings imposed by homeowners' associations.

A: We've seen, "No vinyl fencing," "No unfinished wood," "No lattice" for deck railings, even "No building whatsoever without approval by the association." There are historic districts in most cities and a committee rules these. I think that's great for architecture. It keeps the designers honest, and these areas are far better looking than the norm, because the architects are challenged to do their best work. Architecture is always better when scrutinized.

On Page 4 we continue the interview on residential building codes for deck railings, as Lawrence ends by providing instructions for building deck railings for do-it-yourselfers....

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