As well as serving a practical safety purpose, balustrading adds character and value to a home.
By Gina Hartoog
When building a new home or refurbishing or adding onto an old one, you will inevitably have a need for balustrading. Mostly made from wood, metal or glass, these railings form an important safety barrier along the edges of stairways, balconies, patios and pools. They are made up of a series of balusters or posts that form the supporting columns for the railings or glass.
Although balustrading serves a practical purpose, they are an integral part of your home’s design from an architectural point of view, often forming a focal point from a living space, in the case of a stairway, or from the outdoors, in the case of a pool, patio or balcony, so consider what kind of balustrade will best suit your home and enhance its design.
Types of balustrades
Balustrades can be made from a variety of materials, but the most commonly used nowadays are glass, steel and wood. When choosing balustrades for your home, carefully consider the style of your home and try to choose balustrades that will complement its architecture.
For example, a more traditional home with wooden window frames and floors is suited to wooden balustrades, while glass or steel balustrades would work better in both classic and contemporary homes.
Balusters, the supporting posts for the railings, are commonly made from wood or metal and come in a variety of shapes and designs, from straight and thin (usually the case with metal) to more rounded and intricately carved wooden columns.
Glass balustrades are great for those who want to enjoy uninterrupted views. They are also very fashionable on current and modern building designs, advises Sandra Blackbeard of Steel Studio.
There are even frameless versions available, allowing them to be as unimposing as possible, making a space seem larger. Frameless systems need to be engineered properly and signed off by an engineer to ensure that the glass is the correct thickness and has been installed correctly to take the required load.
Remember, though, that the downside of glass balustrades is that they need to be cleaned regularly as dirt shows quickly, especially if used around a pool area, on outside balconies or outside staircases.
Stainless steel is another modern option, ideal for a minimalist look. “It is an environmentally friendly material and requires little maintenance, simply requiring occasional washing with normal household soap and water. Note that mild steel is not an environmentally friendly option as it rusts and needs to be maintained by sanding and painting every so often,” explains Sandra.
“Wooden balustrading adds warmth and a natural feel to a home. They are also warm to the touch and, if treated and maintained correctly, will last a lifetime,” says Dirga Lowe of Kaljon, specialists in wooden balustrading and staircases.
Wooden balustrades and handrails are suited to all styles of homes both modern and traditional. They can also be combined with wrought iron, glass or steel. “For external applications, the most popular woods are balau and treated H4 CCA pine, while for indoors almost any wood can be used, although meranti and oak are most popular.” Paint and paint techniques on wooden balustrades can also enhance interior design.
Caring for wooden balustrades inside the home is done simply by wiping them with a soft cloth and using a wood oil, such as Woodoc Oil. Painted wooden balustrades should be kept dust free with a dusting cloth especially externally as dust attracts moisture and mould. Treat external wooden balustrades with an exterior UV resistant paint, varnish or wood preservative.
There are many companies that specialise in balustrade design and installation, but how do you go about choosing the right one? “A balustrade’s main function is to provide safety to those using the staircase or balcony and must be able to withstand the loads with which they are burdened.
Many builders and architects see the balustrades as a design element and don't realise the safety regulations that a balustrade must comply with when designing a balustrade on a house or commercial building,” warns Sandra Blackbeard of Steel Studio.
“As South Africa moves towards a far more regulated building industry, more professionals and homeowners find themselves unaware that they are on the wrong side of these regulations. The SANS building codes are a set of guidelines that ensure your building project is safe and able to deal with the task at hand, so find out whether your balustrade manufacturer and installer complies with these.”
These codes are extremely technical and detailed and make reference to different loading (kilonewton metres) for different occupancy classifications, explains Sandra. “In layman's terms, the load a balustrade must be able to withstand in a shopping centre is substantially more than in a residential dwelling.
In terms of the new SANS building codes, balustrade installations must be signed off by an engineer. This sign-off is crucial when getting an occupation certificate. The building inspector requires this professional engineer's sign-off before an occupation certificate can be issued. It has therefore become a critical requirement that manufacturers and installers comply with the SANS building codes.”
Sandra explains that as it currently stands, it is ultimately the client's responsibility to ensure that their balustrades comply with the SANS regulations. “To avoid liability, ensure that your manufacturer or installer has an engineer sign off on your balustrades. Also make sure that your balustrade company complies with the SANS building codes in terms of their design capabilities, manufacturing processes and installation.
Ask your balustrades supplier for a range of balustrades that complies with the SANS codes and ensure they are a member of the following regulatory bodies: Master Builders Association, the Southern Africa Stainless Steel Development Association (SASSDA) in the case of stainless steel balustrades, and the South African Glass and Glazing Association (SAGGA) in the case of glass balustrades. Steel Studio offers a range of balustrades that comply with the SANS codes and will provide an engineer’s sign-off for our SANS compliant range of balustrades,” says Sandra.
Steel Studio offers some guidelines for balustrade installation:
* Ensure that core drilling is to an adequate and suitable depth of 120mm and secured with a non-shrink grout, which is an equivalent or stronger MPa than the concrete, subject to the engineer’s approval.
* Base plate fixings, either top or side fixed, are suitable, provided that adequate chemical anchors are used with the necessary cover depth, and should be designed and approved by a structural engineer.
* A balustrade post should never be installed with a pin fixing at the base of a smaller diameter than the post itself. This will create a weak pivot point at the base of the balustrade and lead to structural failure.
* Stainless steel balustrade systems should ideally always be welded together or where the design calls for it, mechanically bolted together. Filler wire and fasteners of the same or superior material should always be used. Systems that are glued or pressed together may not meet the SANS building code requirements and may also rattle continuously.
* All welds should be cleaned and ground either with a suitable pickling acid or mechanically ground or sanded with suitable dedicated abrasives. If pickling acid is used, care should be taken to ensure that the acid is thoroughly rinsed off with fresh water and the effluent is safely discarded. Care should be taken to avoid contact with finishes such as flooring or carpets etc.
Kaljon, 031-7003910, email:,
Steel Studio, Johannesburg: 011 608 1963, Cape Town: 021 551 3510, nationwide: 0861 724 5464, email: ,