Homeowners who enjoy a view at sunset or a spot to relax with family often add a balcony to their home to accommodate their pleasures. Typically attached at the same height as the interior floor surface from which it extends, the design of a balcony has certain requirements that must be followed. Learning about standard balcony and railing heights begins with an understanding of what a balcony is and ends with verifying local building code.
Balconies can be found in residential and commercial structures and are porches attached above ground level. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary describes a balcony as "a platform that projects from the wall of a building" and enclosed by a railing. The term balcony encompasses both parts of a balcony -- the deck or floor and the railing. Typically, a balcony juts away from a structure and appears suspended above the ground without a structure beneath it. People in some areas of the U.S. may refer to a deck or porch as a balcony.
Most building codes require any deck surface, which refers to any exterior floor surface including a balcony, that sits more than 30 inches above the ground to have a railing. Additionally, standard balcony railing heights are typically 42 inches above the balcony deck, meaning the railing must extend that high and be capped by a horizontal rail for easy gripping. Balcony railing slats are usually required to have no more than 4 inches of space between them and rise no more than 4 inches from the balcony surface. These basic standards are followed by most U.S. communities. However, verifying local requirements during the design and planning phase of the balcony is advised.
Balconies that extend from the second or third floor of a home are built at the floor height where they are attached. This height is usually somewhere between 10 and 13 feet for a second floor and 20 to 26 feet for a third floor. Some building codes may require the balcony floor to attach above the second or third floor surface. In this instance, the balcony is referred to as "above grade." Building codes may restrict the actual overall height of the home, which will help determine the number of floors that can be built and, in turn, balcony height. In buildings where multiple tenants reside, building code may require a particular size of balcony, the ability of the balcony to hold a certain amount of weight and an escape route for occupants.
While a building code may be written to follow many architectural standards, all building codes are not the same and may require different building measurements. Therefore, a phone call to the local city or county building department to verify balcony dimensions should occur. While most architects purchase building code books for the localities in which they work, homeowners can call the city building department to verify dimensions and permit requirements. A local building permit is often required when building additions such as balconies. The permitting process is a way to ensure the safety of the structure.