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Sustainability 106: modular railing systems

Modular railing system
Photo by Rick Zimmerman

Striving for sustainability, architects and builders today are turning ever more to prefabricated and modular building solutions. And with good reason. The sustainable features of such solutions may include reduction in on-site project waste, reduction in embedded energy, reduced overall costs, greater speed of construction, and greater reliability and precision of fabrication.

Modular railing systems offer just such a sustainable solution.

Typically such systems are NOT assembled solely from bin after bin of pre-manufactured parts. Rather, they are most often provided as ‘turnkey’ systems (meaning they are furnished throughout a complete cycle from design through ‘turning the key’ to occupy the finished facility).

In a turnkey process, the selected railing manufacturer/provider — or competing railing manufacturers/providers —would be selected early in the design process, as soon as the overall parameters of the desired railings are determined (via architectural drawings, specifications, performance characteristics, décor considerations, etc.). That manufacturer then provides a ‘turnkey’ price for all services and products necessary to proceed from product design and detailing through complete installation.

The benefits of such a turnkey process are many. First, because the railing components are typically ones that have been employed in various designs previously, they will have been rigorously tested to meet all necessary performance standards. Second, as a greater proportion of all fabrication takes place in controlled shop settings, precision and quality control increase. Third, since most modular systems employ mechanical connectors, the entire process becomes weld-free, meaning improved site safety and less finish work required to finish or groom welds. Fourth, with the process streamlined and primarily shop-driven, overall costs tend to decrease. Fifth, with modular railing systems, there may be greater assurance that every local building requirement for railings, handrails and guardrails will be met.

Most modular railing systems are fabricated of stainless steel, for stainless steel is strong, workable, has alloys that provide exceptional resistance to impact and corrosion, resists ready marking, and can be fairly easily maintained to be sanitary and to have an exceptional appearance for years. As an added sustainability benefit, stainless steel is 100% recyclable.

Stainless steel posts — whether cylindrical, rectangular, blade or some other geometry — are typically placed at up to five-foot spacing. Handrails or top guardrails are often supported atop post-mounted saddles. Infill panels of tempered glass, pickets, mesh, perforated panels, cable or other slatting are then attached between successive posts. To coordinate with desired interior or exterior décor, wood components of handrail and/or post may be introduced. If desired, glass rail panels can also be supported entirely from a stair stringer or ‘curb’ below or from a well opening fascia, eliminating all vertical posts. Some railing systems may also incorporate LED downlighting within the top rail to illuminate flooring or stairs.

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