New Course: Lean on Me – Choosing Railings Carefully

Published on June 14, 2019 by Sara Chauvette


Enjoy this snippet from our new, fully narrated course: Lean on Me – Choosing Railings Carefully.
Approved for credit in Alaska, Georgia, Kentucky, and Michigan.
Or take the course without credit from any state to expand your knowledge!

“Code Compliance

As with most aspects of the creation of buildings, aesthetic design of railings gets you the approval of the customer, but code compliance to obtain regulatory approvals must be met before the work is complete.

When it comes to railings, what is involved in complying with ADA guidelines and building codes? Note that ADA requirements are mere suggestions until they are referenced into adopted local or state building codes and standards, then they become law. Most ADA guidelines are mirrored in local codes.

What is typically required by building codes? To begin with, there are definite differences between guardrail and handrail requirements, found in loading mandates and dimensional requirements. We will touch on these later.

Besides building codes, there are other regulatory agencies with guidelines to which railing design must adhere. These will be discussed briefly.

Railing systems themselves can be certified through the CCRR process, but this certification still does not cover required project specific fasteners. If the project is straightforward, engineering for fasteners can usually also be provided by the supplier. If the project requires closer attention to fastening details, a local engineer can be hired to verify that proper fasteners are utilized. No one wants to be involved with a railing system that fails.

Complying with ADA/Building Codes

The best designs for railings in historic buildings will be those that meet current code requirements, while also acknowledging or duplicating existing remaining detailing. Satisfying both needs represents a win-win for the project. But satisfying code requirements begins with an understanding of where the legal restrictions on what we design originate.

The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is not actually a building code. It is a civil law that often contains the most stringent design recommendations to accommodate handicapped users. Building inspectors are not supposed to enforce ADA compliance, but sections of the ADA have often been excerpted and incorporated as local laws. Some examples of ADA suggestions often incorporated into building codes are as follows:

  • If a walking surface has a slope of 1:20 or more, an installed handrail is required. The railing should run the entire length of the ramp.
  • These requirements do not apply to handrails in elevators or lifts.
  • When a ramp’s rise is greater than 6 inches, a handrail is required on both outer edges.
  • The handrail also must extend for at least 12 inches past the bottom and the top of all ramps.
  • Handrails on stairs must be continuous, lining both sides of every stair, as well as around the platforms in between.
  • At the top of stairs and ramps, rails should extend for at least 12 inches above the surface of the landing and at the bottom, they should extend a minimum of 12”, or the length of one tread.
  • In general, all handrails must be positioned between 34 and 38 inches above the walking surface, ramp or stair.
  • If the principal users will be children, an additional handrail can be added, positioned no more than 28 inches from the ground.

National and Local Building Code Requirements

A brief listing follows as an example of different versions of various codes that must be satisfied in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. This list is specific to work in New York City, which like many other large urban centers, has created their own additional building regulations. Requirements from model codes tend to be adopted everywhere. But before proceeding with a design, it is important to determine whether additional requirements have been imposed by more stringent local codes.”