Railing height and deck tiles on condo balconies

by Jana
(Toronto, ON)

I am on the Board of Directors at a condo, and currently there is a debate raging regarding the issue of allowing or not allowing deck tiles on balconies. The issue is the height clearance.

Condo railings are 42" . The deck tiles shorten the clearance by 1/2 an inch. The debate is - is this allowed by regulations? By Laws? Building code.

I can't seem to find a definitive answer anywhere. Logic would tell me it is permitted, and there are thousands of units installing these and several companies who specialize in this business. No one has been able to give me a black on white answer.

Hoping someone here can. Much appreciated.

Editor's Comments

This is a topic worth discussing in depth. Although you are from Ontario it has relevance to buildings in many states across the U.S. as well. That is because high density residential buildings all require a 42" minimum guard rail height. So let's explore this a bit further and get to the heart of what the codes actually say.

Ontario Building Code "OBC" - Guard Rails

Any residential deck or balcony in Ontario that is 5'-11" (1.80m) above grade must have a 42" tall railing. The height of the railing is measured from the walking surface of the deck to the top of the rail. Similar wording is found in the IRC for U.S. jurisdictions.

You mentioned that you think using deck tiles that are a mere 1/2" thick would be permitted and the practical effect of deck tiles and the safety issue that flows from reducing the effective rail height from 42" to 41-1/2" is indeed negligible. However, you may wish to be careful on this point. My experience is that governments of all stripes are more risk averse then ever. Ontario is a particularly unique jurisdiction.

Ontario is the place where governments spent a great deal of time litigating people who had criss cross infill railing panels where the horizontal elements sloped 45° up or down and ruled that this was excessively risky as children could foreseeable climb these. As a result they are prohibited and there is a significant body of case law on this precise issue. So I would assume nothing.

If you were to obtain an official legal opinion for your condominium association I would bet that any lawyer would err on the side of caution and tell you exactly what I have just suggested and that is that technically the guard rails now fail to meet the minimum standards. Should an accident occur, the condo association or other related parties may be exposed to liability. I will be watching this issue closely because deck tiles are a beautiful upgrade to any urban home. They turn a cold concrete space in to a warm and inviting area. Thank you for sharing this with our readers.

Possible Ways Forward

Railing manufacturers may come up with and adapter cap rail that might snap on top of the existing top rail to add 1/2" to the overall height. They might then also conduct their testing with that extra 1/2" of height added on to the top rail to show that their system still meets the minimum standards.

The government might provide a waiver or an acknowledgement to code officials that the 1/2" variance is acceptable. This would be the easiest but is not likely.

The other most likely option is that people will continue to use deck tiles on their balconies because they are so beautiful and the ultimate effect on safety will be nil. However, that does not change the fact the guardrails will not conform to the letter of the law and all the contingent legal scenarios will flow from that.

Deck Railing Height Information

For those of you who would like to get a quick refresher on railing heights in various jurisdictions read this article on railing heights in the U.S. and Canada.

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