Effi Wolff of Balcony Systems Solutions offers essential safety and maintenance tips on balconies and advises on new cost-saving solutions.
Around seven per cent of properties in the UK feature some kind of balcony, but for new developments in urban areas, that figure rises to over 11 per cent. Private and social housing landlords managing flats that feature balconies cannot ignore their maintenance issues.
The International Standards Organisation estimates that only half the world’s 40 million balconies are fully compliant with building codes, and that figure doubtless includes countries where building codes are largely a fiction. Nevertheless, any risk of a balcony failure is too high to contemplate. Balconies, whether concrete, steel or wood, should be regularly inspected.
The International Code Council suggests specific attention should be paid to split or rotting wood, loose or missing nails, screws, and the integrity of anchors where the structure is attached to the building. Missing, damaged, or loose support beams and planking, and wobbly handrails or guardrails are also urgent warning indicators.
Improper or loose connections can occur on any style of balcony. Connections can degrade over time, and wobbly railings and loose stairs and ledgers that appear to be pulling away from the adjacent structure are obvious causes for concern. Corrosion is the most common issue in the UK.
Metal connectors and fasteners can corrode over time, especially if a product with insufficient corrosion resistance was originally installed. The condition of flashing is another important consideration: water can leak under the flashing, causing wood to rot and the deck’s foundation to weaken. Visual inspection is usually inadequate, as key components of fasteners are often hidden from view.
Railings can be made of many materials, with steel now the most prevalent. Typically, if a deck is more than a certain distance from the ground, railings are required for safety purposes. Building regulations also specify the maximum opening between balusters, spindles or pickets, as well as the height of the railing. However these old-style metal railing balustrades have largely given way to glass balustrades. The advantages are not simply aesthetic – glass balustrades provide a complete barrier, so any risk from falling items to passers-by is significantly reduced.
Landlords must pay special attention to the fixings – upright posts must be securely anchored and the fixings themselves need periodic inspection for corrosion damage, and any decay of the substrate to which they are fixed. Balustrade attachments can fail where the guardrail support posts are attached to the deck and where the guardrail attaches to support posts.
A qualified building inspector should evaluate how railings are attached and verify that the railing attachments are properly installed. The design of balustrades has not changed significantly for more than a century, after the first development of structural glass. That was also the birth of the frameless glass balustrade, a design that has never lost its aesthetic appeal. Glass balustrades have, until now, fallen into one of two categories: laminated, structural glass balustrades (marketed as ‘frameless’), or those supported by regular steel uprights.
The frameless balustrades sit at the top of the market, with nothing to see besides the view and a narrow line between adjoining panes. That minimalist aesthetic has a price tag, however – the laminated structural glass required is heavy and expensive, and fitting has to take that into account as well as the simple mechanics of supporting glass from only the bottom edge.
Fitting is more complex and costly, since recessed channels at least 100 mm deep are usually needed. Steel-posted balustrades are cheaper, lighter and more straightforward to install, and a wide variety of attractive lugs and clamps and posts are readily available from many suppliers, at inexpensive prices. Safety issues with modern designs and products are extremely rare, provided that codes and manufacturers specifications are adhered to.
Improving the system
There is a new type of glass balustrade design intended to provide a combination of high-end aesthetics and structural stability at a price comparable with older designs requiring frequent upright posts. The system has been cleverly engineered to provide stability inside a slim handrail, allowing much longer runs of glass without upright posts and greatly simplifying secure installation.
The new design has concealed cantilevering inside an anodised aluminium rail, which sits on top of standard 10 mm toughened glass, so few, if any, upright posts are needed. The lower-cost glass also brings advantages in both weight and clarity, as thicker structural glass often carries a heavy green tint. In addition, anodised aluminium surpasses even marine grade stainless steel for corrosion resistance. Feedback so far suggests that the aesthetic may prove even more popular than the fully frameless systems.
Effi Wolff is managing director of Balcony Systems Solutions.
This feature was published in the May 2017 issue of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine.
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