Key Insights For Material, Form, Function, And An Appearance That Lasts


Railings are in place to provide guidance and help prevent accidents as a life safety product. For architects, performance and safety are critical to product selection in the design phase, but you also have to “sell the image,” bringing to life the right look and feel to meet the performance and integrity of the building design aesthetic. And still, how do you balance a railing design that is structurally sound and visually appealing, that also maintains its integrity year-after-year?

The average architect has three minutes to draw in each part in the design – which may include upwards of one-half million different parts or products, an astonishing number. With so many parts, architects must be able to move quickly and with confidence in their specifications.

Here are key insights architects can leverage in railing selection to meet both form and function, and achieve an appearance that lasts long after installation. 

Material Selection
Material selection is critical to any architect’s product selection in the design phase. While aesthetics may primarily drive decision criteria, additional factors that impact form and function also need to be weighed.

Material Compatibility. Too often, railing systems are drawn in without taking the local environment into consideration. Replicating design across dissimilar regions from the northeast to the southwest, or ignoring local geography or similar project-specific factors has the potential to impact a lasting appearance – even when form meets function. Due to corrosion, moisture is a prime example. While externally corrosion may be obvious per certain climates, indoor and other water related factors also necessitate consideration, such as whirlpools or areas of high humidity. Sunlight, temperature, and ice damage are also examples of local factors that can negatively impact material compatibility.

Physical Properties. Daylighting, clean and open environments are trending, leading to more open-lined design. Cable railing and glass railing have especially benefitted from this trend. But in trying to keep obstructions to a minimum, keep in mind that physical properties from dimensional thickness to durability will impact the design. Whether it’s with glass, where a top rail must now be applied across the top of the glass, or cable railing where a cable sags because the cable diameter was too thin, the physical properties can play a big role in impacting appearance. 

Handrail Load Requirements
Safety is increasingly under the spotlight, too. With load requirements, architects need to ensure the function is up to par with the form. But as you know it’s not an easy task. With hundreds of codes for as many products, code compliance is challenging to stay on top of. While model codes tend to be consistent in regards to load requirements for railings, that doesn’t mean they are all the same.

Local Authority Having Jurisdiction. The best bet is to confirm with the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) as to what each particular installation requires. Even if you design in a railing that is not required, your local AHJ may still require that it meets the code for handrail or guard. Obtaining clarification prior to specification will save time and avoid conflicts.

Certification. When product certification is required, take a moment to consult with the manufacturer to review availability of test reports. Certification requirements also vary jurisdictionally and it’s up to the supplier to pass performance tests and quality assurance tests. A good supplier will also assist in working with your project engineer to confirm compliance. As with the complexities code compliance, ensuring the products are properly certified will help you save time and trouble down the road. 

Future Railing Maintenance
Nothing is perhaps more critical to a railing appearance that lasts than planning for maintenance. There is no doubt that everyone involved in the design has a similar goal in mind, to build an attractive and functional facility down to the railing systems that is pleasing to use and occupy. Yet designing for the care and maintenance of a building is oftentimes overlooked. And if maintenance isn’t considered at the early onset, it may be a challenge to keep the function and appearance the way it is intended.

Potential Damage. Certain railing system applications experience higher-volume use, and must even contend with vandalism, a commonly expressed concern especially in public areas such as subways or terminals. Whether it is aluminum railings being dinged and damaged or lighted railing lights being kicked-out, issues associated with damage pose a real concern for maintenance and appearance. Make sure durability criteria are up to par with the intended application in design.

Life-cycle Costs: Railings, like any product, contain a number of components with varying life cycles. When working with glass railing for example, a dry-glaze versus wet glaze shoe molding can impact upkeep down the line. The same applies for lighted rail, in which several LED style lights offer strong duration advantages – also lowering maintenance and repair in the process. Life-cycle costing offers a more inclusive method of determining costs. In the architect’s design phase, factoring in life-cycle costing can influence design decisions and help minimize maintenance and other expenses over the lifetime of the facility. If neglected these factors can impact railing appearance long-term.

Help Beyond these Insights
When it comes down to it, there are many ways that the form and function of a railing system can be achieved without coming at the expense of an appearance that lasts. It just takes a little planning on the front end. Take a deeper look at the factors that lie beneath the surface from material selection to load-bearing, to potential future maintenance. From there, the best bet is to leverage your expert resources – which in the end provides the clarity and assurance needed and saves valuable time in the design process.

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