Railing Against Railings

By Debra Levy

Is it just me or have you too seen an avalanche of shoddy new glass railing work? The increased use of such technology is a natural outgrowth of the desire for breathtaking views from smaller spaces and a desire to make vistas ever wider. Whether categorized as glass railings, glass windscreens, glass balconies or glass side rails, they all involve floor-to-waist glazing that offers transparency and views while providing a degree of separation and protection.

It’s the increased protection part that bothers me. Am I the only one who has seen some incredibly awful and possibly unsafe railing jobs done out there? I saw a picture of one recently where the glass seems to be caulked onto the wooden floor and then siliconed together—no top rail, no bottom rail. These types of jobs make me shiver.

Some of the locations where railings are placed give me pause. Using glass around pools, to form the wall of second story lofts, or a railing on a balcony enhances the view greatly, provided the installation is to code and done correctly.

And every time I shiver, I ask “why?” The building codes, although maybe a little slower than I would have liked, have been responsible and developed sound codes around these constructions. The major suppliers also provide great education and products. They care and educate their customers about codes and installation. So how and why do these problems exist? Maybe it’s due to:

1. Suppliers that don’t know what they are doing. Maybe they were in the stair or balcony industry before, and they’ve added glass to their product line without realizing that it is a very different material with very different requirements than those they are used to selling.

2. Ignorant or new installers. They don’t know or realize the complexities of these types of installations and are blissfully ignorant of glass and its properties. Many of these installers are not from the glass industry, they are deck builders or home remodelers and, as the saying goes, they don’t know what they don’t know.

3. No hard in this hardware. Any company can go online and easily find hardware suppliers that will sell anything you need to build a glass barrier. The hardware looks so simple to use and easy to figure out. What could go wrong?

4. The deficient do-it-yourselfer. This guy is sure he can build his own, after all he’s a handy guy. Maybe he can, but he really needs a whole lot more knowledge to be sure he has done so safely, to code, and permanently. The deficient D-I-Y-er is the same guy who glues five pieces of glass together and calls us because once he filled it, his homemade aquarium broke and all the fish died. What, he wants to know, did he do wrong? You never want to be standing there asking that question about an injury to a person rather than a fish.

5. Intermittent inspection and code enforcement. There are two main problems in this area. The first is infrequent inspection. A glass company owner recently told me the story about a large municipal job his company bid. The job required a cap railing by code, so they added it and bid accordingly. They lost the job and the owner was not the least bit surprised to see that the cap railing in place for the code inspection mysteriously disappeared a few days later and has not since reappeared in that building. He is pretty sure it never will. The second problem is that code officials, especially on the residential side, often do not know about work that’s occurred. How many D-I-Y-ers pull permits? Many remodelers don’t as well. Very few locales have mechanisms in place to find work being done without permits. As a result, those jobs never get reviewed.

Railings put the best attributes of glass on display. Making sure that jobs are done properly and according to code are the best ways we can make sure they continue to showcase our beautiful product.

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