An exterior guardrail presents an opportunity to explore a
house's design themes in detail. All too often, designers and
builders opt for an ill-considered stock railing that
technically performs the guardrail function but neglects the
spirit of the building it serves. A well-designed guardrail
should reflect a home's architectural context.
The following examples provide a range of exterior-railing
options for a variety of house types.
Contemporary Cable Rail
This contemporary system uses 1/8-inch stainless steel cables
that run through holes drilled into intermediate newel posts
(as spans allow). They terminate at surface-mounted fittings
with turnbuckles. The continuous top rail — designed to
transition into a handrail at the deck stairs —
contributes to the assembly's streamlined appearance, which
recalls familiar boat railings.
When priorities dictate an unobstructed view, a contemporary
design, and a feeling of openness, this largely transparent
guardrail is a good choice.
Traditional Turned Balusters
Turned wood balusters are typical of traditional 18th- and
19th-century porches, balconies, and widow's walks. Originally,
these railings tended to be stout, measuring about 2 feet tall.
Today, however, residential building codes generally require
3-foot-high guardrails, which can result in the elongated
turned balusters shown here. Unless the homeowner is doing a
period-specific renovation or reproduction, I don't usually
recommend this type of guardrail.
Creating a unique design in the center of a guardrail can
subtly enliven a long and otherwise monotonous run of vertical
wood 2x2 balusters. The pattern can incorporate the same
components used in the rest of the structure.
The railing shown at top right has crisp, clean lines; the
heavy top and bottom rails create strong horizontal boundaries
for the pattern in between. Its formal feel derives from its
symmetry and static geometry. It's a "transitional" design
because it bridges the gap between traditional and more
Composed of 2x4s and 2x2s, the second example of a transitional
linear rail, shown at bottom right, is more graphic in nature.
The 2x4s establish primary diagonal Xs and the 2x2s fill in,
completing the pattern.
A busy railing like this is a nice foil to a simple house form.
The top and bottom rails are not as heavy as in the previous
example, which helps to lighten the overall look. A continuous
top rail — rather than one interrupted by newel posts
— would make it less traditional.
Carved Plank Rail
Of all the guardrail examples, this playful rendition is the
most enclosing. The cut-outs alleviate the opacity; the more
there are, the lacier the effect, as seen to the left of the
break lines in this drawing.
The placement of the top and bottom rails suggests a fence more
than it does a guardrail, adding to the structure's informal
feel. It also means that each side of the railing looks
Such a whimsical design might complement a small cottage or
Eclectic Carved Plank Rail
While still informal, this is a more sophisticated pairing of
cut-out planking and linear balusters. Here, the pattern
alternates between opacity and transparency. A continuous top
rail helps keep the arrangement simple and more
Unlike the previous example, this railing looks the same from
both sides. It suits a variety of home designs, from older
cottages to new custom homes that highlight wood
Katie Hutchisonis an architect and the
owner of Earthlight Design in Salem, Mass.