Lofts are appealing for the square footage and resale value they add to a home. You must keep your loft safe, though, particularly if the people using it, such as children, are not always cautious. Guardrails are one way to make a loft safer, but they don't have to be boring or ordinary; think of them as a design opportunity to complement your loft.
The 2012 International Residential Code (IRC) sets many standards to ensure basic safety for guardrails. Remember that the code sets minimum considerations; you should try to exceed its standards when you can for liability and personal protection. Any surface more than 30 inches above an adjacent surface requires a 36-inch-high guardrail. The code has some flexibility along stair runs, requiring the top rail to be 34 to 38 inches high.
Loft guardrails cannot have openings large enough to allow a sphere 4 inches in diameter to pass through, because that could let a crawling baby squeeze past. Spacing pickets 4 inches on center will satisfy this requirement. Stair guardrails have a 6-inch-opening exception at the triangular area between the bottom rail and the stairs. Pickets along the stair run cannot be far enough apart to allow a 4-3/8 inch sphere to pass. If you see lofts that don't meet this requirement, it may be because the building is not classified as a residence by local building officials or because a local building code exception overrides the IRC. Always apply for permits where required and ask your building official any questions you have.
One complaint about guardrails is that they block views. A rail on a loft might prevent you from seeing mountain views or city lights, depending on where your loft is. Glass railings allow you to enjoy the sights while staying safe. Glass railing systems also have very small openings, so the danger of small children falling or dropping toys through the space is less than with picket railings.
Guardrails with horizontal rails made of wood, metal or cable are common, especially in lofts. It's a contemporary look, but it has some safety drawbacks to consider. Horizontal mid-rails still must not allow a 4-inch sphere to pass through openings. Some building officials may interpret the code to require cables to be closer together than 4 inches if the cabling is flexible enough to be stretched to make openings bigger. Additionally, a child could climb horizontal mid-railings like a ladder, reducing their effectiveness.
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