A friend who hails from England invited me to his home recently. On the basis of accents, I expected his home to be hewn stone and have a thatched roof, and I braced myself to wear the pantaloons I was going to be presented with at the door (although I was looking forward to trying mutton for the first time). To my surprise, he made his home in an ultramodern townhouse with a heavy emphasis on glass and stainless steel. Instead of carving meat from a spit in a hearth, he was serving barbecued ribs cooked on a propane grill. When I expressed surprise, he informed me that England was a modern country and that most Britons preferred minimalist modern homes, “over some pokey country cottage.”
Minimalism is simply the idea that form should be as simple as possible while still functioning, and designers work with what isn’t there as much as what is. Many Britons surrounded by a millennium’s worth of weighty stone and brick have come to admire simplicity and wide windows. But a home doesn’t need to be an ultramodern rectangle like my friend’s to be minimalist. Touches can be in the small details like in opening up the view of the outdoors with minimalist balcony railings.
Minimalist Balcony Railings Come in Many Styles
Minimalism, when applied to railings, is about keeping things as open as possible. In the U.S., the maximum spacing between railings is four inches to keep children from falling or putting their heads between the balusters. This means that opening up the view with a minimalist railing requires using railing balusters that are either very narrow or are see-through. There are a few different materials that fit these criteria.
- Cable railings fall under the narrow baluster category. With this type of railing system, stainless steel cables are stretched either vertically between the top and bottom rails, or horizontally between the posts or vertical framing elements.
- Glass railings undoubtedly open up the view from your balcony since they can be seen through. Styles of glass railing vary, but glass panels are usually either suspended in a frame or bolted onto minimal supports between panels.
- Mesh railings are a blend of the narrow and see-through approaches to railings. These railings are usually repurposed fencing like chain link with the top rail of the fence acting as the handrail and the chain link serving to keep anyone from falling through. These also come in an expanded metal form. They are rather busy to the eye, and may just as easily be thought of as “industrial chic railings” (like the style we talk about in our post on railings for a loft) rather than minimalist.
- Pipe railings are railings built of round piping. Like mesh railings, these usually use materials repurposed from their original intent. Usually, these take the form of a piping frame with multiple pipes running horizontally, acting as balusters. Also like mesh railing, these railings style can seem more industrial than minimalist.
Of course, this list is not the end-all-be-all of minimalist railing options. As a style, minimalism is highly subjective. For instance, some might consider simple steel railings to be minimalist, although I think these make better farmhouse porch railings. There are also exotic custom options like railings that dispense with the handrails completely and simply have balusters or mesh running from the floor to the ceiling.
Another thing to keep in mind is that minimalist railings are minimalist because there is a minimal amount of material used. Less material means a better view, but it also means that more engineering has to go into keeping the railing—and whoever leans against it—upright. This makes these types of railings trickier to install, because when redundancies are removed tolerances tighten, and something as small as using the wrong type of screw can cause a failure down the road. If you are commissioning something custom, you’ll need to pay for that system to be designed in a structurally sound way and installed correctly. Fortunately, there are easy-to-install minimalist railing systems that come with all the engineering already done.
Installing Minimalist Balcony Railings to Open up Your Home
With their transparency, glass railings are the most minimal of the minimalist railing designs, especially in the full glass panel version. These systems come in a variety of types. Glass panels are sometimes suspended between narrow posts or mounts with only a few points of contact and no handrail, per se. These are the sort of system where installation can get tricky. There needs to be absolutely no movement around the points where the pane is anchored, so the bolts are usually sealed with some sort of gasket and with silicone caulk to prevent movement and to keep water from getting in. Because of the complexity of mounting these systems, they usually require professional installation. Alternatively, homeowners can opt for a glass railing style in which the glass panels slide into a simple metal frame. This design makes it possible to take a DIY approach to installing glass railings.
Cable railings may be more visible than glass railings, but they are also more versatile and can be installed with a variety of post materials, from wood to metal to composites. The design of a cable railing is relatively simple. You just install tensioners into the frame and then pull the wires taught. However, installing the tensioners to the frame can be complicated when you’re building the railings from scratch. The railing’s cables have to parallel with each other, and they have to be plumb (when installed vertically) or level (when installed horizontally). When you’re starting from scratch, this means measuring and leveling holes in every post or rail with no more than a four inch spacing between them. For a DIYer, this can get challenging, and even for an experienced crew installing railings on a large project, this is a lot of work. An easier solution is to go with a pre-assembled cable railing system in which the cables are already strung onto a frame, which can then be mounted to any type of post you’d like.
The more industrial versions of the minimalist look, such as mesh and pipe railings, are harder to speak definitively about since there’s a lot of variety in how these can be installed. Simple chain link fence versions are just chain link fencing stretched between pipes and anchored using fittings. Expanded metal versions are usually a metal lattice either bolted or welded onto square tube stock, and aren’t that much different from a standard steel railing. In my opinion, the most elegant minimalist options, if you aren’t looking to have something custom designed for you, are cable and glass–particularly well-engineered, pre-assembled systems that aren’t complicated to set up.
Over the years, I’ve figured out that minimalism isn’t always about austerity. When you type minimalist homes into a search engine and look at the images that are returned, you’ll see a lot of rectangular box-shaped homes and rooms in white and neutral colors. These sorts of homes are definitely not for everyone, and more often than not are architectural showpieces more than homes meant to be lived in. It’s important to remember that minimalism is about the dialogue between you, your home, and its surroundings, and a touch of minimalism–say, in a balcony or deck railing–can add elegance to a home, even if that home isn’t the perfect example of minimalist living.
There are lots of glass and cable railing systems available that lend themselves to the minimalist look. A lot of these, I’ve found, are complicated to order (glass systems often require you to measure your deck or balcony in order to have the panels custom cut) and difficult to install. Fortress Railing’s Pure View glass railing and cable railing systems both have a unique design that makes them easy to install, and they’re also designed to be tough against whatever the elements–or your family–can dish out. The same people behind Fortress Railing, the company Fortress Building Products, also makes other tough products, like elegant composite decking to go with your new minimalist railings.