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Don't Let Your New Railing Be a Liability to Your Business: 7 Essential Elements of a Reliable Railing

It's simply good business to take every opportunity to maximize assets and minimize liabilities. When it comes to your new railing system, you want it to be an asset in every way possible. With some careful planning, you can avoid the pitfalls that might turn it into a liability.

The right railing system delivers timeless beauty in an architecturally correct package. It withstands the test of time while requiring minimal maintenance. By contrast, the wrong railing system may detract from your business because it is unsafe, unattractive and/or non-compliant. An unsightly railing silently assails your brand. A non-compliant railing is costly to remedy. In extreme instances, an unsafe railing may even land you in court.

Architects, designers and contractors install railings in an endless variety of commercial settings:

Deck enclosures at restaurants and nightspots
Complementing edifices of government buildings
Balconies on multi-family buildings
Atop boathouses at sailing and yacht clubs
Around verandas overlooking golf courses
Straddling elevated riverfront walks
Railing Systems Address Important Needs

The best railing designs for commercial properties meet every important requirement. Such systems:

Provide for everyone's safety

A code-compliant commercial railing serves provides for safety in many ways on decks, stairways and ledges.

Help people maintain their balance, particularly when carrying items
Maintain safety in adverse weather conditions
Provide peace-of-mind to those with vertigo or a fear of heights
Prevent loss of furniture, umbrellas, cushions and more in extreme winds
Comply with safety regulations

Commercial railings attached to multi-family buildings, mixed-use developments and businesses are all subject to IBC regulations. The IBC requires that the top railing be at least 42 inches above the leading edge of the walking surface or tread. Taller railings are acceptable as long as they are compliant with all other code requirements.

According to the 2006 IBC, guardrails, handrails and supports must handle loads of 50 pounds/linear foot applied to the top of the rail. The system must also support a concentrated load of 200 pounds/linear foot applied at any point along the top rail.

Railing systems must also pass the four-inch-diameter sphere test. That is, a sphere of that size cannot pass through any openings between balusters or spindles up to a 34-inch height. There is a more liberal test from 34 to 42-inches above the tread or walking surface. In that area of a railing system, an eight-inch sphere cannot pass through an opening.

Meet ADA requirements

Of course, commercial railing systems must be compliant with current requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These standards have been repeatedly updated since the ADA became law in 1990. Updates noted in a 2010 Department of Justice memorandum are examples. Evolving ADA standards require ongoing diligence since it is possible for even the most well-intentioned designers to inadvertently run afoul of the regulations.

Address liability concerns

A single railing-related accident may lead to publicity adverse to your brand. At commercial developments, railing failure is not an option. Therefore, it is best to be very proactive when it comes to the selection of materials and the engineering of the design.

7 Essential Elements of a Reliable Railing

You don't want to miss anything when you are searching for the perfect railing system for your application. Here are seven important elements to look for when you are shopping for railing systems for your commercial project.

1. Strength

During their lifetimes, commercial railings endure a series of expected and unexpected impacts. Consider whether the proposed railing system might be subject to unusual stresses or impacts. Is the railing system positioned where falling objects might strike it in an unusual or unexpected event in the future? Is it possible that a railing might be buried in snow piles that would otherwise warp inferior materials?

We've all seen railings that are bent or broken beyond repair. Since a full replacement is expensive, you want to invest in a strong railing that will withstand the test of time. Sufficient impact resistance is critical. For example, many commercial rail systems are designed and fabricated to handle 50-lb/linear ft lateral loads and 200-lb point loads. Such a standard is important where railings must restrain and/or support crowds.

Consider an outside deck at a rooftop restaurant, for example. Loads must be properly transferred from the top rail to the posts and the base plates. Users must be able to grasp the rail at all points. Rail diameters must meet standards for graspability as well.

2. Durability

Historic railing systems and balustrades crafted from traditional materials like wood, cast iron or cast concrete frequently deteriorated over time. Eventually, wood rots, ferrous metals rust and stone crumbles. Today, renovations of such systems often make use long-lasting materials like polymer stone, polyurethane, fiberglass and aluminum alloy.

Durable railing systems fashioned from such materials still look good years after installation. These materials, properly installed, will also protect your bottom line from the expense associated with premature replacements.

3. Ease of installation

Designers and contractors consider labor costs associated with every dimension of a commercial construction project. Some railing systems are much easier to install while others require exacting welds or other complex steps. Lightweight materials are often easier to install.

They also don't require the structural support of heavier materials.

The more difficult the installation, the greater the potential for errors. Since many railing systems provide essential safety, it is vital to avoid an installation issue that could compromise the system. No matter how strong the railing material is, faulty installation jeopardizes safety.

4. Minimal maintenance

Lifecycle costs are a key consideration in commercial construction projects. Consider railing materials that retain their good looks for many years. Powdercoated aluminum does not require refinishing. It is a super-tough finish that does not fade. Polyurethane with integrated color retains its good looks even when scratches or other minor defects appear. Stone polymer also retains its original look for many, many years. Whenever possible, it is ideal to avoid a need for periodic repainting.

Also, consider that low-maintenance building products also tend to be more sustainable. In today's commercial construction environment, sustainability is of keen interest to everyone from property owners to developers, and from architects to designers.

5. Aesthetically pleasing

Modern railing materials provide for much greater design flexibility. Polyurethane and fiberglass effectively mimic the look and feel of wood. Aluminum blends with ultramodern architecture. PVC can be fashioned into more ornate designs. Stone polymer is a relatively lightweight material that blends perfectly with more classic designs. It also dramatically reduces the structural support that stone or concrete often requires.

6. Light in weight

Virtually every project stakeholder prefers advanced materials that are both strong and light in weight. Synthetic materials like fiberglass and polyurethane are uniquely positioned to simultaneously deliver code-compliant strength in a lightweight package. The strength of aluminum alloys also allows for sleek, lightweight designs.

7. Code-complaint

Commercial railing systems must comply with relevant provisions of the International Building Code (IBC). Consequently, designers do not have the freedom to specify just any railing material without constraint. The best materials are strong, yet aesthetically pleasing and value-priced. Railing materials and construction must comply with strength testing standards.

For commercial installations, the top railing must typically be at least 42" high. This standard applies to virtually all commercial railings, including those around decks and balconies attached to multi-family apartment buildings and condominiums. In some jurisdictions, more stringent local codes, including those pertaining to sustainability, may also come into play.

Benefits of Various Materials and Styles

Architects and designers consider the look and feel of endless commercial building materials. The best designs feature materials that evoke a seamless appearance indoors and out. When it comes to railing systems, all stakeholders, including building contractors and property owners, consider everything from aesthetics to functionality. Lifespan costs are always important as well.

Let's take a look at some of today's popular railing materials.


Fiberglass (FRP) will not rot, rust or decay. It is also resistant to insect infestation, mold and mildew.

Consider a stout, heavy-duty FRP balustrade that simultaneously delivers the safety and substance you want in a commercial application. Early in our nation's history, railing systems were often fashioned from very heavy materials like cast concrete, stone or cast iron. It required extra effort to move these heavy materials to the site and into position.

By contrast, fiberglass systems are much lighter and simpler to install. They are also designed to withstand the test of time. Typical commercial FRP systems will last many decades.


High-density polyurethane is a closed-cell foam with a firm skin. It is a lightweight material that, like other synthetic substances, does not rot, rust or otherwise decay. It is also insect-resistant, mold resistant and waterproof. The tough outer skin resists chemicals, oils and grease. Polyurethane's resistance to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays is another plus.

Polyurethane systems come in a wide variety of sizes from 3 ⅝-in to 12-in. Select pre-painted polyurethane to reduce labor costs. Pre-drilled railings make installation that much easier. The use of support blocks is important when spans exceed eight feet.


Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a strong, weatherproof building material that is exceedingly low maintenance. PVC railings often feature an aluminum insert for added strength and stability.

It functions like wood without the splitting and splintering. The material will not rot, rust, warp or otherwise decay. Flexibility and light weight combine to facilitate quick, easy installation. It is easy to paint PVC railing systems when desired.

PVC rail systems merit consideration for numerous reasons.

No special tools required for installation
It is easily cut to length with a power saw featuring a carbide blade
PVC rail systems deliver good color retention
It retains its impact resistance in extreme cold
PVC rails will not soften in hot weather

Their durability and strength are reflected in the generous warranties commonly offered by leading fabricators.


Aluminum railings are ideal when you want to simultaneously achieve three important goals: structural integrity, aesthetics and value. Aluminum rails deliver an aesthetic consistent with many modern architectural designs.

At the same time, railings fabricated from super-tough 6063 aluminum alloy deliver desired durability.  Thanks to high-quality AAMA 2604 powdercoating, it's easy to blend the color of your rail system with the surroundings. Cable railing systems combine aluminum rails and supports with code-compliant cabling. There are applications where it is ideal to combine a sleek, clean look with excellent visibility.

Unlike ferrous metals, aluminum won't corrode or rust. Ice, snow, rain and UV rays are no match for aluminum rails. Unlike wood, aluminum does not rot, splinter, warp or shrink. It is also a low-maintenance material. Powdercoat is ultra-tough and scratch-resistant. Top-quality aluminum rail systems also come with generous warranties.

Ease of installation is always a consideration with commercial railings. Quick installations cut costs while helping contractors to meet tight deadlines. Other metals like steel and wrought iron typically require the use of cutting torches and grinders.

Stone polymer

Some of the highest quality stone polymer balusters are fabricated from a high-density polymer resin, crushed marble and colored pigment. Multiple pigments allow designers to match these stone polymer railing systems to the look and feel of a wide range of architectural designs. Match the appearance of solid stone balusters without the weight. In fact, the polymer stone fabrication process yields system components that are only about half the weight of natural stone components. Deliver an essential Class "A" fire rating in a lightweight package.

Select from different sizes to keep your rail system proportional to the architecture of your edifice, balcony, deck or walkway. When you mix the strength of this building material with a wide 10.5-in profile, it's possible to maintain perspective by blending the system with taller architectural designs. Or select from smaller 5.75-in or 7.5-in profiles.

Contact Us Today

Since 1985, Worthington Millwork has delivered the railing systems and other architectural elements that simultaneously deliver style, strength and durability. Ensure everyone's safety while enhancing the perceived value of your commercial development.

We'd welcome the opportunity to learn more about your next project. Let us put our years of experience to work for you. We deliver customized, finely crafted building products that architects, designers, contractors, developers and business owners look for. Contact us today for prompt and professional assistance.