The challenge of getting more use out of smaller spaces has been one of the main thrusts of my building practice for the past decade or so. If there is a nook or cranny that can be utilized, I will work with my clients to make use of it. One project that’s popular for its ability to serve a dual purpose is the elevated deck. These are sometimes built in the back of a house to provide a deck area while also creating a below-deck space that can offer multiple uses. Elevated decks are frequently situated above storage areas and outdoor living nooks, or they form a shelter above the patio of a daylight basement.
Since they are elevated spaces, railings are typically required and are a good idea if they aren’t (if you’re in doubt, take a look at our post on what’s the maximum height a deck can be without a railing). But since the purpose of an elevated deck is to make the most of the space you have, you’ll also want a railing system that eats up as little deck surface space as possible. And as these decks often form a roof for the space beneath them, railings that can be side mounted are generally the best fit for the job. Whatever the case may be, when choosing railings for an elevated deck I look for a system that is strong, beautiful, and built to last. Here’s how to decide what railing is right for your elevated deck.
Greater Railing Strength Leads to More Living Space
When I build a deck, one of the biggest priorities on my checklist is to make sure that the usable space is absolutely maximized. This means picking a railing that takes up as little space as possible, and in my building practice, this also means selecting the strongest railing material available. Here’s why you want extra sturdy materials when working with a small space:
- Narrower Posts: Using a strong material allows a railing’s posts to be smaller, opening up valuable living space. This is helpful since the posts are the railing component that supports the entire system and thus they are generally the bulkiest element of the railing.
- Narrower Balusters: A stronger material makes it possible for all parts of the railing to be smaller and thinner. Apart from gaining additional deck space, narrower railings–particularly balusters–can open up views for those lounging on the deck or gazing through the windows.
Material Choices for Railings for an Elevated Deck
Three of the most common materials I work with when installing deck railings are wood, vinyl, and galvanized steel. All of them have different qualities, strengths, and relative weaknesses that determine which projects they’re best for.
Wood: Frequently constructed with 4×4 posts, 2×2 pickets, and 2×4 rails, wood is a sturdy railing material that allows for a great deal of flexibility in construction. The drawback of wood is usually the care and maintenance required to keep it in good shape. If you choose wood but don’t wish to regularly stain, seal, and inspect it, you may eventually need to deal with popped and loose fasteners, cracking, rot, and other forms of weathering. Wood isn’t generally the best solution for an elevated deck, either, since wood railings need to be substantial and relatively chunky in order to provide enough strength.
Vinyl: The great benefit of vinyl is that it won’t mold or rust. The better lines of vinyl railing are also able to hold their color and clean up easily. The biggest weakness of vinyl railing is, well, its weakness. It’s a relatively flimsy material that cracks and chips fairly easily, and I don’t suggest it to homeowners looking to add a railing–especially a fascia-mounted one–to an elevated deck.
Steel: Steel is by far the strongest of these three materials and that’s a big plus for a railing system that needs to prevent a fall from an elevated deck. Because of its strength, it’s also able to do the most work while taking up the least space. In situations where every inch seems to count or where peace of mind from a strong railing is of great importance, I will almost always choose steel. The biggest practical drawback to using steel has always been the amount of work that it takes to keep it from breaking out in rust. Fortunately, this isn’t the case across the board, as there are steel railing systems protected by advanced coatings that successfully keep the moisture out and make this a low maintenance choice.
Why Choose a Fascia Mount System?
With an elevated deck, a fascia- or side-mounted system is almost always the best choice. This method involves mounting the railing posts to the outside face of the decking joist. There are a couple main benefits to attaching the railing posts in this fashion, as opposed to mounting them to the surface of the deck:
- It maximizes space: Choosing a strong, streamlined railing system helps to free up space on an elevated deck, but taking the railing completely off the decking surface is even more effective. Wood railing systems can be fascia mounted, but since wood isn’t as strong as some materials, make sure to use only sturdy, high-quality brackets and hardware if you choose wood. Steel, aluminum, and cable railing systems are widely available in fascia-mount styles.
- It doesn’t risk puncturing a moisture barrier: If the deck happens to be above an area that needs to be protected from the elements, drilling holes into the surface to attach a railing isn’t the ideal situation as it can allow moisture to seep through to the area below. In the last few years, I’ve transformed quite a few under-deck areas into dry, sheltered places. As homeowners look to get more use out of the space they have, side-mounted systems may well become the norm. We’ve talked already on this blog about using side-mounted railings for a flat roof, and the same logic applies to elevated decks as well. When you’re looking to keep the space beneath a roof or deck dry, the wisest course of action is to attach your railings to the side, not the surface.
The last several elevated decks I’ve constructed have all required the use of sturdy galvanized steel railings mounted onto the side of the deck. When a client is looking for a high-quality railing that’s safe and easy to fascia mount to their elevated deck, I typically send them in the direction of the Fe26 railing produced by Fortress Railing. Their railings are among the most durable on the market because of a unique coating process that uses multiple weather-resistant coatings to prevent rust and fading. That means they should stay strong and functional, as well as attractive, for many, many years (they’re warrantied for 15 years). If your beautiful new railing has you thinking about swapping out your deck boards to match, I also recommend taking the time to browse through Fortress’ entire catalog of innovative products, including bamboo-based composite decking.