Any trends in deck rail design are probably thanks to the conquest by interior designers of what was once merely the backyard. Well-heeled buyers have long been commissioning outdoor spaces with elements of high design, but now even buyers with modest budgets want a touch of class on their decks. Most are adding it to a deck’s most visible element: the guard rail system.
Manufacturers have responded with enough new products to satisfy all tastes and price points. At the same time, this emphasis on railings has caught the attention of code makers, who are placing deck rails under more scrutiny.
The product side has seen an explosion of new offerings. Anyone who attends a building-related trade show or opens an industry magazine will see a plethora of railing products, from sleek cable rails to glass panels to spindly balusters with built-in lights. Effectively selling these means understanding what's clicking with today's buyers in the areas of design choice, lifestyle enhancement, low maintenance, and cost.
Design. Deck builders are assembling railing components on their projects in eclectic ways, with manufacturers, dealers, and builders alike reporting more mixing and matching of styles and materials. "We've built decks with multiple sections that mixed four different types of products in three different colors," says Dave Lombardo, a contractor who owns American Deck and Patio in Baltimore, Md. That comment is typical.
Lifestyle. Where the deck overlooks a nice landscape, buyers are looking for rail systems that don’t block the view as much as traditional balusters do. This interest has helped grow the market share of cable rail and glass, but it’s also making traditional balusters thinner and darker. "When I started in this business six years ago most every deck had traditional 2x4 rails and 2x2 balusters, regardless of whether they were built from wood or composites," says Alan Nansel with The Deck Superstore in Denver. "Today, round metal balusters have become more popular. This is partly because they're easier to look past and interfere less with the view."
One of the most popular lifestyle enhancements is lighting. Manufacturers, dealers, and deck builders nationwide report that demand for deck lighting continues to grow, with choices ranging from baluster and post lights to accent lights recessed into the deck boards. “In 2011 we sold just $2,000 in lighting; this year we predict sales of around $10,000," says Michael Douglass of Burgess Lumber in Santa Rosa, Calif. "We have one builder customer who puts lighting on 70 percent of his deck jobs."
Maintenance. Most manufactured railings are aluminum or vinyl, but even on custom decks, more builders seem to be passing on wood. "People don't seem to mind wood rails and posts but for spindles wood is too hard to maintain," says Dan Ivancic, marketing director at Advantage Trim & Lumber in Buffalo, NY. At the other end of the country, Douglass finds much the same thing. "We still sell more wood railing, but that's mostly because it's cheaper," he says. "We doubled composite railing sales this year over last year."
Cost. Installers say that when it comes to non-wood rail systems it's important to emphasize installed cost. Take cable rail. "A lot of people think they can't afford it because of the higher material cost," says Mike Guertin, a Rhode Island builder who trains other builders in deck construction. "But when I calculated time and materials compared to a site-built system with conventional balusters, the installed cost was a wash."
While the future almost certainly holds more innovation and a larger universe of products, expect code standards for deck rails to tighten. The 2009 International Residential Code put more scrutiny on decks in general, after years of practically ignoring them, according to Glenn Mathewson, a Colorado building official who serves as a technical adviser to the North American Deck and Railing Association. The most notable railing provision—at least from a design standpoint—was a requirement that handrails be at least 36 inches above fixed deck seating, in order to prevent small children from standing on the seat and climbing over the rail.
Mathewson believes the requirement is clearly ineffective, and in fact his local International Code Council chapter supports a proposal to withdraw it during the next code cycle. "It’s hard to see the point in regulating fixed seating with so much loose seating common on decks," he says.
Less clear in its implications is a proposal that would limit how much a rail system can deflect. Mathewson has no quarrel with the concept, but the proposal doesn’t specify how to test an assembly, which could lead some plan reviewers to require an engineer's seal. "It could mean the end of custom wood guards as we currently know them," he says.
Guertin, who builds custom rails on half his decks, doesn't know how the proposed change would affect rail design, but he would like to see some prescriptive standards on how to meet it. Otherwise, inspectors would have to rely on their judgment, which would introduce an element of uncertainty.
The final vote on the proposal may not be until this fall and the design of manufactured systems, which are engineered, would be less affected. Regardless of what happens, the fact is that with more attention from everyone involved in the deck business, high-design railings are probably here to stay.
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