Designing balustrades that deliver style with safety and durability

While aesthetics are obviously important, a balustrade project must also be fully compliant and fit for purpose for the particular application, whether that’s apartments or an airport. Nick Haughton, marketing manager at Sapphire Balustrades, offers advice on designing balustrade solutions that deliver style with safety and durability.

Specifying high quality balustrades involves much more than simply creating the right look. Before selecting a system and style of balustrade there are a number of important factors that have to be considered, such as how the nature of the project application and environment might influence the design and what regulations apply and must be met. These factors can cover anything from assessing the risk of vandalism or corrosion to providing a solution to suit people with disabilities. Even issues such as restricted site access can have an impact on the design.


Balustrade designs must comply with relevant British Standards relating to structural integrity and design loads, and Building Regulations such as Document M, to ensure they meet the needs of all users irrespective of age or physical ability. Failing to comply with these requirements can have serious consequences. Apart from a potentially costly project delay if a design is refused by planners or building control, inappropriately designed or installed balustrades can result in fatalities or permanent injuries.


Balustrades provide a vital protective barrier where there is a change in level greater than 600mm in dwellings and 380mm in commercial applications. Balustrades for communal stairways or balconies, for example, should be designed to avoid the risk of persons falling through gaps. In effect, this means that balustrades should not have gaps which permit a sphere of 100mm diameter to pass through, and in residential applications this includes the ‘triangle’ formed by the tread and riser. It is also important when designing balustrades to ensure that they are not easy to climb, particularly by children. These are just a few of the technical design considerations, and it should be noted that different parts of a building or staircase within the same project could contain areas that require different design considerations.


Handrails assist in the access and use of buildings and, like balustrades, their design is covered by a raft of regulations relating to aspects such as height, colour, positioning, and dimensions. In most situations, handrails should be positioned on both sides of flights of stairs and landings, and cater for all users. While standard heights should be between 900mm for ramp or flight pitch lines and 1,100mm above the landing, a second handrail for children at 600mm high may be required in some applications. In addition, handrails should terminate in a way that reduces the risk of clothing being caught. A contrast in colour and luminescence to their surroundings can enhance visibility, while external handrails should not be cold to touch.


There is extensive scope in terms of materials, profile shapes, fixings, and detailing, to create a unique style for balustrades for balconies or stairwells, while still ensuring regulatory compliance. Handrails can be manufactured in a wide variety of finishes, including practical satin polished stainless steel or a ‘mirror’ polished finish, or be powder coated to any RAL colour to enhance durability and complement interiors or external facades.

A stainless steel handrail on a structural glass balustrade, for example, creates a light and spacious effect. Laminated toughened glass can be used for the ultimate in glass panel security, and for added visual appeal the laminate interlay can incorporate colours or patterns. Timber handrails are another popular option as they are not cold to the touch and can be produced from any sustainable timber including ash, oak, and cherry – a timber effect coating can even be applied to metal handrails. And there are some exciting new features such as LED lighting, which can be built into handrails.


Achieving the right handrail or balustrade solution is about more than just aesthetic appeal. With so many technical considerations and design possibilities, it’s not surprising that many architects find specifying balustrades a daunting task. Finding a supplier with the expertise to guide you through the whole process and ensure that nothing is overlooked can be invaluable to completing a successful balustrade project in terms of looks and lifetime costs and performance.