Site-built wooden guardrails used to be the rule on residential decks. However, as of 2019, they had fallen to roughly 40% of the market, according to a report by Principia Consulting.i And while 40% of a $2.1 billion market is still considerable, that percentage continues to shrink. Site-built wooden rails may eventually become a specialty product like custom-made doors.
That's already happening in places. Reading, Pennsylvania contractor Matt Breyer says that few homeowners still want wood. “We might build five wooden rails for every 100 decks." The rest of the market is manufactured products made from metal, wood-fiber composites and even glass. Their popularity might seem unlikely— a site-built wood rail can be 1/3 the cost of a manufactured rail—but cost isn't everything.
Real benefits for builders
Not only do manufactured railings take less time to install, making them a viable solution for contractors short on help, but the quality is more predictable than custom railings built in the weather.
Building inspectors also prefer manufactured. That's because code requires that all guards— including deck guardrails—be able to resist a live load of 200 lbs. in all directions, but it doesn't specify how to achieve that.
Glenn Mathewson, a code consultant and Founder of the BuildingCodeCollege.com, says that he and a coalition of deck industry people have submitted structural details for site-built guardrails to the ICC for consideration in the next code update. In the meantime, many manufactured products have been tested to ASTM D7032, which certifies that they meet the 200 lb. requirement. "That gives the building inspector assurance that the product will resist the code's loading," he says.
Meeting design trends
But the biggest reason for these products' rising popularity is the aesthetic choices they offer. James Moylan of Design Builders, Inc. in Laurel, Maryland wrote in a recent blog that customers are using railings to make "big design statements," and that glass panels and cable rail are especially popular. "These are great if you’re trying to preserve a view or if you just want a contemporary, clean, streamlined look."
Manufacturers are driving the trends. Fortress Building Products— which makes aluminum, glass-panel, iron and cable rail products—publishes a guide to help buyers to mix and match materials by walking them through the process of choosing infill panels, then posts, then personalized touches like designer caps and lighting.
Some contractors like to blend custom and manufactured elements. Bobby Parks of BP Consulting and Design in Winston Salem, North Carolina was in the custom deck business for 25 years (he is now an industry consultant) and was known for railing systems that combined materials such as wood, aluminum and PVC.
Production builders take notice
Production home builders looking to provide upgrades, differentiate their homes, and meet outdoor living trends are taking a closer look at decks.
Tim Kampert, building performance specialist with IBACOS, a quality assurance firm that works with production builders across the U.S., says that a lot of production builders save money by not adding decks to the homes they build. However, Kampert says that production builders who do include decks with manufactured railings see them as a quality advantage that brings happier customers and fewer warranty issues. "The craftsmanship is better since the units are manufactured in a controlled setting."
For more information about deck and railing products for homebuilders, visit FortressBP.com.