On Downtown Properties, Railings for Roof Terraces Keep Customers and Property Safe

Railings for rooftop terraces

Railings for roof terraces face many challenges, from the weather to people who lean on them.

Nearly everyone dreams of the lights downtown. There’s something about being in the center of the city that screams success. When one of my oldest friends found success early in life, she turned her eye to personal satisfaction in the form of a rented hole-in-the-wall with adjacent outdoor space on the terrace of one of the most exclusive mixed-use properties downtown. She set about turning this space into a bistro (in her shoes, I would have shown Jimmy Buffett how it’s really done, but to each their own).

The problem that she ran into after opening her bistro was that her little corner—and I mean literally a little corner—was constantly overrun with people who weren’t actually her customers. She closes promptly at noon on Sundays, and more than once she’d come in on Monday to find her veranda covered in litter. Since this outdoor area makes up the majority of her space, it was hampering her efforts to make her hobby into a real business. What she needed were suitable railings for roof terraces to divide her space from the rest of the roof and keep it exclusive.

The Unique Challenges Roof Terrace Railings Face

The challenges railings on terraces face will depend on what type of terrace they’re installed on. Railings installed on a private terrace may face the occasional rowdy party, but the odds are that guests will largely be well behaved. The key challenges on a private terrace are the natural elements, including:

  • Wind: The wind moves at a faster clip the higher above the ground you go. How this affects non-integral installations on a high-rise—like balcony and terrace railings—depends on where these are installed. A structure deflects the wind around it, and this creates an insulating sheath of deflected air around the building that protects balconies and shields rooftop terraces to some extent. When it comes to terraces lower down on the building, the dynamic changes, and when the wind blows from certain angles these terraces can experience ferocious downdrafts.
  • Sunlight: Ultraviolet light is an intense wavelength that over time can break the chemical bonds that hold paints and plastics together. This fades colors and damages coatings to the point that they crack, leaving a path for water to intrude.
  • Moisture: Moisture in the natural environment can do serious harm to materials. It comes in the obvious form of rain, but morning dew, fog, sleet, and snow also do harm to railings. If the protective coating on a metal railing is damaged, moisture can seep into the railing and begin corroding it. In colder climates, where this moisture can work in and then freeze, this can cause cracking and structural vulnerabilities.

These natural elements are daunting enough for railings in the relatively protected space of a private home, but railings installed on a public terrace have another challenge: the public. The public doesn’t own the place, aren’t liable for damages, and are mostly anonymous when they cause damage. Rock stars on their worst nights can’t tear things up like the crowd can during a 20-percent-off sale at an upscale boutique. The railing around my friend’s bistro terrace space not only needs to remain standing in the face of the elements, but also in the face of crowds. This is a special challenge since there is a sports bar a space over, and all the local teams are terrible.

Railings for Roof Terraces That Rise to the Challenge

When selecting a railing for a roof terrace, you might think preserving the view would be paramount. In my friend’s case, this was not a concern. Her railings would be an addition to the safety barrier already on the building. In this area, that barrier is a waist-high concrete wall, so views are something of a moot point. What she needs to do is to section off an area solely for her customers and her outdoor furniture, while leaving a walkthrough area directly in front of her bistro so traffic can go around the corner. The key factor is how well her railings will stand up to people, and she has a few different options.

  • Aluminum railings generally have a traditional appearance—these railings often look like wrought iron—and are sturdy and lightweight. Since my friend is planning to save money on the installation by doing it herself with the help of a few friends, that lightness is a good thing. Yet, while aluminum is a strong metal, it isn’t as strong as some of the alternatives, which is an issue for my friend.
  • Steel railings are very similar to aluminum railings. The major difference is that steel is stronger than aluminum and much harder to damage through carelessness or—in the case of a sports fanatic—through anger. Rust can be a concern with steel, but with high-quality coating processes, steel railings made by a reliable manufacturer now have excellent corrosion resistance.
  • Cable railings have balusters made from tautly-stretched stainless steel cables within a steel, aluminum, or wooden frame (although wooden frames aren’t generally a good choice for commercial properties). They can be stretched vertically between the top and bottom rails or horizontally between the side rails. In many cable railing systems, tensioners have to be tightened regularly to keep the cables taut. That is a lot of maintenance for a small business owner, and tensioners are something that people tend to mess with. There do exist versions of cable railing without these tensioners, and they’re generally the best choice for a public space.

After discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each system with me, my friend is considering adding steel railings. The extra strength would prevent damage to the railings and maybe bruise the knuckles of a few fans on their way home from the sports bar. It’s also possible to add some homey character by attaching wood to the top rail, giving a rustic, inviting touch to my friend’s bistro.

In the same building as my friend, there are shops and restaurants whose frontages face a walkway, and whose designated terrace areas are at the rear. In these shops, customers misusing the terrace area isn’t as big of a concern, and the view really is paramount.

In these spaces, steel or aluminum railings can be used without blocking too much of the view. However, since there’s likely to be less wear on the railings and less chance of anyone fiddling with them, cable or even glass railings are the best railings for a view. I would suggest looking for a cable railing system without tensioners and with an actual rail—rather than just another cable—as a handhold at the top of the railing. Similarly, I’d look for a glass railing system that boasted a full frame with a top and bottom rail that will stand up to sports fans after a heartbreaker—or, for that matter, after a victory, too.

For anyone who, like my friend, is in need of attractive, durable railings, Fortress Railing offers thoughtfully-engineered, innovative railing designs that will stand up to the elements and to a crowd. Their Al13 and FE26 railings have classic good looks as well as a unique multi-coating system that keeps them from rusting no matter what weather they face. Alternately, Fortress’ Pure View Glass Railing and Cable Railings don’t obscure the view and make the perfect frame through which to admire the city skyline. They also fit well with other cleverly-designed offerings from Fortress Building Products such as wrought iron-look fencing that doesn’t rust, and super tough, moisture-resistant composite decking.