Volume 36, Issue 6,  June 2001


Building Codes and Lower Costs Ignite Glass Handrail Popularity

When Model Glass, a glazing contractor in Anaheim, Calif., decided to build its own facility, the company’s owner desired a modern, open look. "We decided to install glass handrails throughout the building. It removed the visual barriers our old handrails created and helped to complement the rest of the interior," said owner Tom Metz.

A Look at the Codes
Model Glass isn't the only company turning to glass handrails. Over the last few years there has been an explosion in the application and popularity of glass railings. This is attributed partly to building codes that apply to the handrail industry. These codes were enacted to prevent individuals from slipping between handrail posts on balconies and drop-offs. The size of an opening in a stair railing or guardrail has been reduced dramatically in the last few years. The latest change reduces the opening so much that traditional railings have become solid barriers effectively.

In 1976, the Uniform Building Code read, "Open guardrail and stair railings shall have intermediate rails or an ornamental pattern such that a sphere 9 inches in diameter cannot pass through." To address the safety of children, the restriction further decreased the diameter to 6 inches and now today it is at 4 inches. 

As the view between railings became more obscure, people looked at alternatives to metal and wood post railings. One clear example is in the retail environment. Glass handrails enhance interiors of many stores by removing visual barriers, thus allowing customers to see the store merchandise better.

On Target

In choosing glass railing for stores, Bill Taylor, store team leader for the Northgate Target store in Seattle said, "We are an upscale discounter and reflect the upscale image in everything we do—from the people we hire to the layout of the store. The glass handrail is a reflection of this image. We also found that a glass handrail system permits shoppers to view products and displays on another floor, something not allowed by posts or walls."

"One of the main reasons Target decided to go with glass handrail is so shoppers could see the merchandise," said Scott Lindsay, superintendent for Baugh Construction, the general contractor awarded the project. "The glass allows shoppers to see different departments and displays from above or below."

While codes are becoming stricter, glass railing companies are able to reduce the costs of glass railing, making this a great option for buildings and homeowners. Our company, a national provider of glass handrails, has seen a significant increase in sales of glass handrailing for both business and home use.

Baluster vs. In-fill
There are two types of glass rail: baluster and in-fill. They both must meet codes specific to glass railing. Model code regulations usually require either a 50-lb/ft uniform loading or a 200-lb concentrated load to the handrail at a distance of 42 inches above floor level.

Glass in an in-fill rail does not aid in the support of the railing. Posts support the railing and the glass is used to fill the space between posts. "Codes regarding in-fill rail are technically no different than a window in a hazardous location, except that the glazing must be a minimum of ¼ inch in thickness," said Donn Harter, director of technical services for the California Glass Association. 

Glass in a baluster type railing supports the top rail or handrail. It is affixed to a base and usually imbedded into the floor, serving as a structural component of the rail.

"With baluster railing, the code requires the panels to be fully-tempered, tempered-laminated or heat-strengthened laminated glass. Each handrail or guardrail needs to be supported by a minimum of three glass balusters or otherwise supported so that if one baluster fails, the rail will remain in place. A guardrail must also be attached to the glass or between walls or posts," said Harter.

Single family residences and condominiums are using glass more and more as deck railings. Although the most affordable is an in-fill rail, there is even more demand for glass baluster railings which have no vertical posts.
Our company is supplying an increasing volume of glass baluster components nationwide and has a program to supply the glazing contractor with the components necessary to complete custom rail projects. A typical installation goes as follows: heavy base is in stock and supplied when needed. Once installed, the glazier templates and orders the glass from his favorite fabricator. Buying the glass directly saves time and cost. While the glass is being fabricated and installed, the cladding and rails are fabricated and shipped.

Forming an Attachment
In a glass railing system, the attachment of the base section to substrate is a critical factor in determining the strength needed for the glass railing. There are a variety of methods of attachment, and fabricators should consult a structural engineer when anchoring the railing to the building structure.

"As all railing systems are or should be engineered, it all stops where the base touches the floor. The anchor is the responsibility of the installer. Always have a structural engineer inspect the substrate and calculate the anchors. Recommen-dations like, 'That should be good enough' should never be followed when planning a rail installation," said Gary Towndrow, with RGA Architectural Sales in Seattle and a representative for our company.

"We always review our projects with an engineer," Metz said. "We need to be positive that the system is stable and can withstand imposed loads. Handrailing systems can vary in style and structure. Therefore, it is important to have an engineer review each project."

In addition, it is very important to consult governing code, local ordinances, project specifications and regulatory authorities to determine requirements for compliance. It is the responsibility of the building owner, architect and installation subcontractor to comply with applicable building codes and regulations.
Once the project is complete, you will have a beautiful, structurally-sound railing, giving your building a contemporary, open look. 

Empty Picture Box 
Dana White is a railing
specialist with Morse Industries
in Kent, Wash.


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