Balustrades: everybody knows about them, uses them, and relies on them, but what happens when they are not right?
1. What are Balustrades?
Balustrades are railings or walls designed to prevent people from falling over the edge of stairs, a balcony or ledge.
They come in a myriad of shapes and sizes
2. When are They Required?
A continuous barrier (such as a balustrade) must be provided along the side of:
- any roof to which general access is provided;
- any stairway or ramp;
- a floor, corridor, hallway, balcony, deck, verandah, mezzanine, access bridge or the like; and
- any delineated path of access to a building.
- where the trafficable surface is 1 m or more above the surface beneath.
The Building Code of Australia (BCA) Volume 2 – Housing Provisions contains requirements for balustrades and other barrier constructions for Class 1 residential buildings. Part 3.9.2 of the BCA sets out the acceptable construction practice for balustrades as part of the requirements for barriers and handrails. These provisions have been changed over the last few years so it is important that members review these changes to ensure that stairs in particular have compliant balustrades.
3. What are the Construction Requirements?
The construction of a balustrade or other barrier must be in accordance with the following:
- The height must not be less than 865 mm above the nosings of the stair treads or the floor of a ramp;
- The height must not be less than—
A. 1m above the floor of any access path, balcony, landing or the like (see Figure 2); o r
B. 865 mm above the floor of a landing to a stair or ramp where the barrier is provided along the inside edge of the landing and does not exceed a length of 500 mm;
C. A transition zone may be incorporated where the barrier height changes from 865 mm on the stair flight or ramp to 1 m at the landing (see Figure 3);
D. Openings in barriers (including decorative balustrades) must be constructed so that they do not permit a 125 mm sphere to pass through it. For stairs the opening is measured above the nosing line of the stair treads (Figure 2);
E. A barrier, except a window serving as a barrier, must be designed to take loading forces in accordance with AS/NZS 1170.1; and
F. For floors more than 4 m above the surface beneath, any horizontal elements within the barrier between 150 mm and 760 mm above the floor must not facilitate climbing.
4. What are the Issues that We See Today?
The construction requirements for balustrades were tightened in July 1997. So it is possible now to have a home with a non-compliant balustrade,that was compliant pre 1987. The issue is clearly not a structural defect (so will not be impacted by generic pre purchase building inspection clauses often used) but none the less an issue that should be brought to the attention of buyers so that they can be aware of the potential safety issue, especially if they have children.
Balustrades in homes approved for construction prior to 01/07/1997 are allowed to be 900mm high. In houses approved after this date, horizontal stair balustrades and balcony balustrades must be a minimum of 1m above floor level. Balustrades are only required for a difference in levels in excess of 1m.
Balustrades are important! They should be able to stop people (especially kids) from falling and causing injury and or death to themselves.
There are some very specific requirements for balustrades constructed in homes approved for construction post July 1997. The pre 1997 requirements were less stringent than the post 1997 requirements but property owners should at least be aware when balustrades are not compliant with current codes.