Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at email@example.com.
If you’re a homeowner looking to build a deck or, more likely, replace the one that’s there, you could easily go online and design your own. The Trex website, for instance, let’s homeowners do exactly that. And not only will you design with Trex composite deck boards, but you’ll enclose that deck in the railings Trex manufactures, made of the same material.
It all coheres, and looks easy enough to do. But when it comes to structure and styling, you’d probably be a lot better off with a professional deck designer’s eye and input. That includes design of the railings, which are a key functional and aesthetic element of any deck.
Those who design and build decks have different ways of looking at what railings ultimately contribute. “We call them guardrails,” says Bryan Miller, owner of fast-growing Outback Deck in Atlanta. “They’re there to keep people from falling and getting injured.”
Miller notes that unstable rails are one of the two top causes of deck accidents (the other one is the ledger attachment). They’re supposed to be in place,” he points out, “and in place correctly.” So the first order of business is to get them installed according to code.
Miller and others also point out that railings are often a deck’s signature design element, the line you draw to complete the look and feel of the shape—discreet, self-effacing, well-proportioned. They both contribute and call attention to the whole.
“I look on railings as an accent,” says Matt LeFaivre, owner of J.R. LeFaivre Construction in Taneytown, Md. He means visually stimulating but without calling a huge amount of attention to themselves.
For veteran deck designer Gary Marsh in Marin County, Calif., the deck is “one of the major components of the aesthetic” effect he sets out to create. But it’s still just one component among several. “You want to know it’s there, without its playing a huge visual role,” he says. And sometimes you want to make it disappear into the background.
But in an area of California where decks are often 30 feet off the ground, a primary consideration is topography. “The railing,” he says, “must match the topography.” It needs to be especially sturdy while affording a view and screening what’s below.
More Than You Know
Gone are the days when a deck was just a frame with a wooden floor and clunky railings. Tropical hardwoods and synthetics forever changed it. And though railings may be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the cost of a deck, depending on design philosophy, the choices of materials, colors, and shapes have multiplied to dizzying effect. Vinyl, synthetics, wrought iron, powder-coated aluminum (in white, black, or brown), and glass panels. Currently at the top of the heap are steel cable railings. “We’ve had people here asking about the cable rail systems,” says LeFaivre, who sees all options at home and garden shows. “They’re very popular,” he says, but also “very expensive.”
Some homeowners don’t bat an eye at expense. But what looks great online may not always work for that deck, that house, that site. No matter how much research they do, there’s a lot homeowners don’t know or will ever learn, about products and design. “People will come to me and say: ‘I want stainless steel horizontal rails,’” Marsh says. “If I feel comfortable with that [in the context of the overall design], I’ll see how it can work. But it helps to walk through the aesthetic concerns and then slowly move through structural concerns.”
When it comes to cable rails, for instance, Marsh has two reservations. Cables harden or soften depending on temperature fluctuation, which can cause them to become less than taut. In addition, Marsh says he’s wary of specifying them if the home contains children, given how far up off the ground many of his projects will be.
Sightlines Reign Supreme
Some deck builders prefer to use one or, at most, two manufacturers for deck boards and railings. The advantage consists of more than just simplifying things. “I’m a big believer in a complete solution and straight line warranties,” Miller says. Some decking manufacturers provide a complete array of railings—in different colors, and for different post sizes—that enable deck and railings to work well together. That also leaves homeowners with a 15-year warranty on product, a strong selling point.
But the fact that there are so many options gives designers and deck builders the opportunity to combine materials in a rail design, much like mixing materials when in re-siding a house, with brick on the ground floor and wood shakes on the gables. For Ron Spillers, who co-founded West Coast Decks in Seattle 25 years ago, combinations came about more or less by accident as synthetics, metals, and other new materials were introduced and began to augment cedar, the company’s tried-and-true material of choice. “When we started installing metal rails, people would say: ‘I’d really like to have some wood.’ So we started putting up cedar posts with metal between them.”
More product choices enabled combinations that soon upended conventional notions about how decks and deck railings ought to look. On its website, West Coast Decks offers a sampling of these as well as a gallery of railing materials for prospects to select from. Spillers estimates that about half his prospects have done significant research and the remainder “are relying on me to tell them what the options are.”
Though the options are many, low maintenance is a big factor for a company that started out installing strictly cedar rails, for which “maintenance is a pain,” Spillers says. The most popular rail system West Coast Decks installs is powder-coated aluminum.
All About Sightlines
Spillers notes that one of the things that makes aluminum and other metal railings popular is the smaller profile. Rails are a kind of fence placed around the perimeter of a deck, but as with window frames, the smaller the profile, the more there is to see. It “makes for a more open feeling,” Spillers notes.
To convey to prospects what that looks and feels like—and also, he says, because it’s more and more difficult to get all the decision makers in one place anymore—Spillers typically tours the property, then meets with clients online via the GoToMeeting application. There he can step them through his AutoCAD design, so that, among other things, “we can help them visually understand railings.” Most importantly, he says, “I can pull up photos and run through all the major railing types, from metal to synthetics and combinations. Sometimes the kids are gathered around the computer watching what we’re doing, helping the adults make changes. Photos are key.”
What They Want
Some designers will often go with a single manufacturer’s products or, as with Outback Decks, two of them—one for deck boards, one for the rails. Others, like West Coast Decks, let prospects pick their rail system. They believe that prospects who have input into the deck’s design feel more like it’s their own.
That’s not every deck designer’s philosophy. Marsh spends hours studying the site and talking to clients about what they want. While he agrees that the railing must suit the client, he says it must also “suit the setting and the view or lack of view.”
Not only do the rails need to complement the deck, the deck has to look like it came with the home, Marsh says. So every design is unique, “specific to each situation.” For instance, he discovered that by extending joists beyond the deck, he was able to mollify some clients acrophobia (fear of heights), which is sometimes present with decks so high up off the ground.
Clients are paying Marsh for forty years of experience that includes endless problem-solving in difficult-to-build terrain. “Rather than say, ‘Here are the railing types and sizes, which one do you want?’” Marsh says, he asks himself what they intend, and sets out to create a design that exceeds expectations. “That’s what you hope,” he says. “If you do it well enough, they’ll understand.”