Modifications to the International Building Code Impact Glass Railings
What you need to know about the implications for safety and liability


More and more, glass railings are being incorporated into architectural design, bringing a cleaner appearance and open environment to buildings both outside and in. However, as glass has become more prevalent, growing concerns over safety have led to International Building Code (IBC) modifications and along with it, model code referencing practices that have created marketplace confusion.


Here are the issues driving the need for a better understanding of building codes for glass railings, and what architects and installers need to know about code changes, requirements and referencing to ensure safety for individuals while meeting code compliance.


Changes to IBC 

In 2015, the IBC was modified to include more stringent requirements for the installation of glass railings in large part to improve safety. This has had a broad impact on railing installation as the IBC serves as a model code for local building codes around the world including the majority of jurisdictions in North America. As such, local building codes in the United States and Canada have also evolved.


Particular to glass railings, the IBC changes have impacted application to interior building spaces as well as the façade envelope. These IBC modifications included two key changes which have brought a major shift to glass railing systems:

  • Tempered-laminated glass must be used in any installation in which an individual could walk beneath a barrier that is not permanently protected from falling glass.
  • A top rail must be applied across the top of the glass. The only exception to this is if the local building authority waves the requirement.


While tempered glass has always been required by the IBC, the change to require laminated glass presents a departure from monolithic glass – which, when broken, does not stay in position in its frame. The lamination of two glass panels together provides the safety mechanism to prevent glass from breaking apart and falling. The top rail helps to hold panels in place. In addition, it provides further security to the edge of each panel – the edge provides the tension that holds in the compression from the tempering process.


Referencing Code

Mounting marketplace concerns over safety and liability have resulted from recent superstorms and high profile projects where glass railings have failed. With the increased attention being given to safety and liability as a result, oftentimes, more stringent codes are being referenced and specified for installations irrespective of locale or necessity. Ultimately, this has led to marketplace confusion about which code to reference for installation and all it entails for safety and liability, not to mention associated costs.


The IBC is a model code – a model code is a recommendation for what a code should be. It doesn’t become applicable unless it’s adopted by state or local jurisdiction. In some cases, since the model codes are considered a “minimum standard for safety”, local jurisdictions may choose to amend the model code to make it more restrictive. One code in particular that has caused marketplace confusion is the Miami-Dade Building Code – which is a more stringent adaption of the IBC. In addition to the IBC standards outlined above, Miami-Dade requires anything above 40 feet be subject to small missile impact testing and anything below 40 feet be subject to large missile impact testing – large missile impact specifies a nine-foot long, nominal 2 x 4 projectile be fired six times by a compression canon at a minimum of three panels wide.


Liability Issues

Unfortunately, with the specification of materials comes professional liability. With changing regulation it can be challenging to keep up with the latest code requirements; not to mention discerning which to follow. Oftentimes, calculations derived through independent testing are incorrectly presented as adequate to be compliant to a particular code. When specifying, architects need to ensure products stipulated are properly certificated to mitigate risks and liability.


Similarly, as the “experts”, glazers and metal fabricators bear the onus for code compliance of the products they install. When sourcing glass and railing systems, it’s important that the products be properly certified which requires a certification from a governing authority. From a safety and liability standpoint, all products should be officially certified to be in compliance within the given code. Calculations that hit the mark alone don’t in fact hit the mark when it comes to protection from liability.


Getting Clarity, Achieving Balance

While stringent codes such as Miami-Dade’s represent a good reference point, striking a balance between reasonable safety and cost effectiveness is also an important consideration. This code, which is one of the strictest in the world, is specifically specified for a three-county area in greater Miami. However, a common misperception is that the code covers the entirety of Florida. Beyond Florida, hurricanes along the Eastern Seaboard have prompted many to incorrectly reference the Miami-Dade Code requirements, as well.


While ensuring safety and limiting liability are the top priorities, it’s still important to do so in a cost-effective way. After all, more stringent codes can result in higher labor, product and project costs.


When it comes down to it, there’s a lot to know about code compliance, and it all starts with an understanding of how the IBC has evolved and impacted local jurisdictions as a model code. From there, it’s a matter of identifying which code makes the most sense to follow for ensuring optimal safety and liability while also balancing costs and other considerations. That means understanding which code to follow based upon the specific application and geography. Always consult with the local “Authority Having Jurisdiction” (AHJ) to confirm local requirements and interpretations.


The code compliance experts at Wagner Companies will be your resource and guide for understanding the code requirements that will affect your architectural needs – which in the end provides the clarity and assurance needed, and lets you focus on your business, whether that entails architecture and design or installation.