Making the right choices with balustrades

As one of the more complex and varied architectural elements, balustrade can have especially variable results in terms of site impact and carbon footprint. Peter Melia, UK business development Manager at Neaco, explains how making the right choices can deliver major benefits in the immediate and long term

With a multitude of design options on the market, from top rails and stanchion clips to infills and floor fixings, it can be difficult to know where to start when designing balustrade. Putting aside the aesthetic details for a moment, the best starting point is perhaps the most fundamental consideration: the method of construction and its compatibility with modern practices.

Optimum site efficiency, maximum safety and minimal environmental impact are at the forefront of modern methods of construction. It is therefore desirable to complete as much of the construction off-site as possible and for that reason many designers, developers and contractors now prefer pre-fabricated modular systems with all components finished at the factory stage, ready for fast assembly on delivery to site. Advanced forming technology can achieve virtually any curvature or angle necessary. The requisite combination of measurements and angles is calculated to a precise degree through consultation between the architect/designer and the manufacturer’s technical support, so time spent on site is significantly reduced.

Modular balustrade components are generally connected with (ideally internal) fixing systems which provide ‘dry works’ installation – in other words, without the need for hot works such as welding. The impact on the existing site is substantially lower with less noise, dust, pollution and energy consumption. Factory conditions also provide superior quality control (with testing, prototyping and checking of uniform quality), avoid on-site delays caused by adverse weather and enable better Health & Safety risk management. Construction works is a significant waste stream to landfill sites and the controlled factory environment facilitates far better waste management with off-cuts very easily collected for re-use or recycling.

Choosing materials – aluminium
Popular choices of material for high-aesthetic handrail and balustrade are aluminium, timber, stainless steel and toughened glass. Aluminium has a number of natural advantages: it is lightweight yet durable, non-toxic, non-combustible and with time generates a protective oxide film coating with excellent resistance to corrosion. It is also 100 per cent recyclable, with no downgrading of its properties and very little energy required for re-melting, and has the ability to accept different surface finishes such as anodising and powder coating, thereby providing aesthetic versatility with RAL or metallic colours. Powder coating offers a maintenance-free, non-chip finish which is smooth, safe and warm to the touch. In extreme conditions, external metal handrails can become extremely cold and uncomfortable to the touch (BS 6300 recommends that handrails should not be cold or hot to the touch) and the low thermal conductivity of powder coating addresses this problem.

The natural beauty of timber is an attractive option, especially when the development has a more traditional aesthetic, but a number of disadvantages are worth considering: ongoing treatment is required to maintain its appearance, prevent absorption of bacteria and control infection. The alternative is metal handrails and balustrade in a wood-effect finish. In the past these types of products have suffered from a credibility issue – put simply, they didn’t look real enough – but thanks to advances in powder coating technology, the distinction between real and fake has become considerably harder to discern. The intricate detailing of natural wood grain can now be reproduced to the extent that, to the naked eye, it is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Aluminium is an ideal metal for wood-effect – it readily bonds to powder coating to provide a smooth finish which, while similar in appearance, offers several contrasts to real timber: it is non-absorptive, warm and safe to the touch and highly resistant to surface damage.

Stainless steel
Stainless steel also provides high-class appearance and, compared to timber, its aesthetic virtues are less compromised by practical disadvantages. It is extremely hard wearing – no ongoing maintenance is required to maintain its visual quality, bringing further carbon savings to the lifecycle of a building. The quality of its finish can be enhanced by unidirectional polishing at the manufacturing stage. Different grades suit different environments – for example, typically Grade 316 for external use and Grade 304 for dry internal use.

Structural glass
Structural glass requires no supporting uprights and therefore provides an ideal balustrade solution when seeking maximum visibility or a more ‘minimalist’ aesthetic style. A factory heatsoaking process can accelerate crystallisation, reducing the risk of potential breakages when the glass is in situ. Low Iron glass options provide a noticeably clearer panel than the inherent green cast of standard clear float glass used in balustrade applications. The top of the glass can be secured by a toprail – ideally ovular or tubular aluminium which again can be made warm-to-touch with powder coating.

Balustrade suppliers must ensure that their products comply with the requirements of BS6180: 2011 which provides a comprehensive guide to the design, structure, height and strength of barriers. Balustrade must offer suitable horizontal load-bearing capability for its particular environment – for example, in areas where people congregate without crowding, such as a stairs or corridors, it should bear uniformly distributed line load of up to 0.74kN/m, whereas restaurants, retail/public areas not subject to overcrowding and pedestrian areas in car parks require a load-bearing capability of up to 1.5kN/m. Free-standing structural glass must be toughened in accordance with BS EN 12150-2:2004 – the stronger systems on the market will offer load bearing capability of up to 1. 1.5kN/m. With their manufacturing uniformity and largely standardised components, modular balustrade systems provide reliable and consistent performance in meeting Building Regulations.

When all factors are considered, it is important to remember that the practical, environmental, regulatory and aesthetic demands of balustrade needn’t be competing forces – with expert technical support from an knowledgeable and experienced manufacturer, complex requirements can work together to deliver reliable, consistent and accurate results.