The maze of CODE COMPLIANCE with regard to replacing guardrails and handrails during a condominium or HOA building restoration project is a complicated one.  In Florida, there is a building code for new construction, but not one for building restoration.  With the event of the city of Sunrise condominium Champlain Towers collapsing, and the resulting loss of life, and law suites, the resulting new Florida Building Safety law (SB4D) calls for the boards and managers of Florida’s condominiums and HOAs to be diligent to act to make sure they are in compliance with its requirements.  Railing is a big part of building restoration, and can contribute to the interior corrosion of the structural steel of suspended concrete walkways, decks, and other building components if not maintained properly.

Not only is compliance to building codes something that needs attention,  now reserves must be estimated properly and then funded such that the real future cost of replacing your railing has to be included in your condominium or HOA budget and maintenance fees.  This single addition, to say nothing of the other components that need to be added to your reserve and operating budget, will increase maintenance fees from now on, and there will be no lowering of them for the foreseeable future.  It is essential that you understand your railing, its current condition, and future repair and replacement cost.  Here is some information we know you will find helpful and useful.

The various codes and guidelines are not the same, and someone has to determine which one applies to each given situation and location, aka your building.  There are many “players” in the overall picture that may be responsible to see to it that the codes and laws are complied with.  Some are empowered by contract with an owner, by virtue of their certifications and licensing (engineers and architects and construction managers), some are required by law to enforce the codes or guidelines (local building officials) , and the property owner has some voluntary compliance to deal with.   As confusing and lengthy as this concept may be to address and explain, let me attempt to give you an brief overview of the “big picture”.

The main question is, who is responsible to make sure that you, the property owner, have complied with the requirements of all of the building codes, the fire codes, and the Florida accessibility guidelines (the laws) of the city, state, and federal levels?   This is a question that condominium association Boards should ask their hired professionals to answer before hiring anyone to assist them.  Which hired professional should you ask?  The answer is:   ask them all until you have assured yourself that your project will be in compliance with all of the laws and codes that will apply to your building. These players may include: a professional day-to-day property management firm or your on-site manager.  Be aware, however, to cut them some slack for not knowing the answers, since these days most property managers do not have the experience, training, education, and skills to be expected to answer correctly.  They should know who to ask, and direct you to them.

Options for answers on railing repairs, replacements, and restoration and which codes apply include the following.  A restoration property management firm, a construction management company, an architect, a structural engineer, a comprehensive engineering firm, and/or a general contractor.  Of these,  the structural engineer and/or the architect would be  “most expected to know” what the laws require.  They also have the most experience since one of their functions is to certify that a railing design is strong enough to comply with codes.  Other non-hired “players” may include the county building department, your local city or town building official, and/or the fire marshal having jurisdiction in your area.     During the pre-planning stages of your building restoration project,  there should be a “meeting of the minds” that,  if a professional is hired, that firm or person will be expected to provide code compliance assurance for your project at all levels as a part of their service.

Your restoration specifications and drawings that are prepared by your structural engineer will be presented for approval to the local building official and he/she, along with a review by the Fire Marshal, will review these plans and specifications.  If they are in code compliance, they will be approved, if not , they will be rejected.  However, in Florida, the building official is only required to enforce the Southern Standard Building Code (SSBC), his/her local building ordinances (county and city) , and the Florida Accessibility Code for Building Construction (FACBC) .  The Fire Marshal enforces Life Safety Code NFPA 101, which has its own railing requirements.  So both of these have to approve a set of plans before work can commence.  But neither of these are responsible to enforce the Federal laws: including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility guidelines.  Compliance with the ADA is voluntary for residential condominiums and HOA’s, and it is the responsibility of the owner to comply voluntarily. As such, it is important for the owner to gain complete compliance assurance from their private hired professionals for not only the SSBC, local ordinances, and Life Safety 101, but also code compliance assurance with the Federal ADA requirements.

Before we address certain code and guidelines whose requirements may apply to your community association restoration project, we must address the “confusing” parts of determining what the correct answer is to exactly what must be installed.  Since each of the codes and guidelines say different things, knowing which applies is the key.  First, whichever code or guideline is more restrictive, that code or guideline specification applies.  Second, although it is generally accepted that the local building official has the last and final say in all matters, just because you have complied with his/her orders and that a certificate of occupancy or final approval of repairs has been issued, that does not necessarily mean you have eliminated all risk.  The fire marshal and the building officials don’t always agree, and neither are required to make sure you have complied with the Federal ADA requirements.

When it comes to ADA compliance, and railing, there is a distinct difference between residential condominiums and HOA’s, and commercial.  The rule of thumb is this.  If you invite the general public to come to your property, whether that is for business, pleasure, or staying overnight there, you must be ADA compliant.  That means ramps, railings, handrails, alerts, signs, it all has to comply.  But, ADA compliance for residential condominiums, HOA’s, and cooperatives is “voluntary”. If you ask an official State person this questions, they might use the word voluntary. But to be honest, they would rather have you not ask, and they don’t want to reply, and go on the record.  That is because there is only case law to define this issue, and there is not much to go on.  It’s a “tweener”, and the above rule of thumb is used almost by everyone as the standard.

There is also another layer here in your railing restoration event.  Your insurance company, the one that provides your common area property liability has a say.  They have in interest in your risk factor.  They inspect your property once per year, at renewal of the policy, or shortly thereafter.  If they can see visually that your railing is deficient in strength or compliance, they will issue a letter giving you the reason for the deficiency, and a time frame in which to get it fixed and comply.  If you don’t, they can drop coverage.

As a property owner, you may want to consider the judgements and facts presented by all of the professionals involved before you make your decision on what to install.  The building official is only required to enforce certain laws which were developed as the MINIMUM standards to be used.  It is possible that a judge would decide that more than the minimum standards would apply to your situation.

Here is just one example regarding Guard Railing picket and rail opening dimensions which causes debate among code enforcement officials. Life Safety Code 101, Section 5- Guard Details, states: “Open guards shall have intermediate rails or an ornamental pattern such that a sphere 4 inches in diameter cannot pass through any opening.” When a fire marshal reviews a set of plans, he/she expects to enforce this provision. The FACBC requires 4 inch openings.  Now, consider the building official.  He/she enforces the SSBC, the FACBC, and the County Contractors Licensing Board (if your county has one)  (CCLB) amendments.  Some area still have the older sphere 6 inches opening rule.  So, check with everyone about everything, and make sure you are complying with your specific authority’s codes.  Code compliance is so important, especially if you have an injury or property damage.  Remember, insurance companies are looking for any cause to deny a claim, and code compliance failure is a common cause.

As to the question of whether a renovation, partial replacement meets the same code requirements as new installations, one answer comes from Life Safety Code 101.  Chapter 18.111 of Life Safety Code 101 states that any alteration or replacement must meet the same requirements as new installations.  Each county can have their say.  For example, recently the  Pinellas County building department, for example, remarked that if any railing is removed and it does not meet current codes, then it must be replaced with new code requirements, even if it is a small portion of railing.  Check with your local official before assuming anything.

Continuous handrails are becoming the norm in most codes for stair towers, regardless of whether they are residential or commercial.  The FACBC Section 4.9.4 Handrails, Par (1). states “Handrails shall be continuous along both sides of stairs.  The inside handrail on switchback or dogleg stairs shall always be continuous.”  Life Safety 101, section 5- states that “New handrails shall be continuously graspable along the entire length”. And with regard to stairs Section 5- states “Required guards and handrails shall continue for the full length of each flight of stairs.  At turns of stairs, inside handrails shall be continuous between flights at landings.”

In layman’s terms, imagine you were either blind or blinded by a thick layer of smoke, there are no lights on, and you are on the top floor of a high rise.  In theory, the hand rail needs to be continuous such that if you grabbed onto to it on the top floor (or any floor for that matter) , you would be able to get to the bottom floor and out of the stair way enclosure without removing your hand from the railing.

Ramps must have handrails on both sides, and guard rails if their elevation from ground level is greater than 30 inches.  FACBC Section 4.8.5 par. (2) Handrails states “Handrails on ramps which are not continuous shall extend not less than 18 inches beyond the sloped segment at both top and bottom, and shall be parallel to the ground surface. ”

Handrails must be a certain size, and must be mounted at specific heights and distance from the adjacent wall.  They must (Life Safety Code 101) “have a circular cross section with an outside diameter of at least 1 1/4 inches and not greater than 2 inches.  Handrails usually are installed independent of a guard rail, however, in certain circumstances the top rail of a guard rail can serve as a hand rail if it meets the cross section requirements and height requirements. When officials were asked about height requirements for condominium private balconies, walkways, and stairs,  most agreed that not less than 42 inches was height for guard rails on level areas.  For stair, ramp, and indoor heights, consult the codes.

During the course of the investigation for this article, I discovered several things that appeared to be information that some officials were not aware of.  One item in particular was unfamiliar to all that I spoke with, and drew challenges from some.  Life Safety Code 101 actually carries a code requirement to address those persons with a fear of heights. Section 5-2.2.52* Visual Protection, states “Outside stairs shall be arranged to avoid any handicap to the use of the stairs by persons having a fear of high places.  For stairs more than three (3) stories in height, any arrangement intended to meet this requirement shall be at least 4 ft. in height.”  I asked a local fire department official if that meant that a condominium replacing its stair tower railing on an exterior location had to have , not 42 inch high guard rails, but 48 inch high guard rails.  He said, after a pause, “yes.”

“Pounds of force” is a phrase used by some building officials to represent the pressure a guard railing system can withstand without failing.  On hotels, motels, and resorts, railing tests are performed every year or so, to make sure handrails and guard rails are in their proper locations.  Private or commercial condominiums are not required to have these tests. However, there is some discussion about why there is any difference with regard to lifer safety in either case.  For example, the environmental conditions being the same, why should a hotel have to have their railings inspected once per year, and not a residential condominium?  Leaving a pin in that issue for now.   The SSBC, Section 1608.2.2.3  states “The guardrail system shall also be designed and constructed to resist a 200 lb. concentrated horizontal load applied on a 1 ft. square area at any point in the system including intermediate rails or other elements serving this purpose.”  Engineers have a load test that they can perform on site to check the condition of your railing system to determine whether it meets these requirements and/or should be change out during a restoration project.

There are many more factors to consider when specifying replacement safety railing as a part of your restoration project or new construction.  It is important to know that all of the codes mentioned in this article MAY apply to your project.  It is not uncommon for a restoration project to cost a great deal of money.  Leaving out testing the condition of certain building components, such as safety railing, because it “looks OK” is tempting for cost savings.  Failure to examine some aspects of your building’s structure may save money now, but leave vital questions unanswered for another time when life safety may be at stake.  Finally, with all that is at stake, choosing your hired professionals wisely is a critical matter.  Make sure they have covered all the bases,  and that you, as property owner, are made aware of every concern of theirs found during the discovery portion of their examination of your building.  A Board’s goal and duty is not only to protect your building’s structure, but also to ensure the safety of its occupants.

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