Cottage Q&A: Rules about railings

Updated: November 26, 2019

By Tricia Daniel/Shutterstock

In an American cottage magazine, I saw steel cable strung horizontally for deck railings. I thought it was a great idea. Is this allowed in Canada?—Laura Fehr, via email

Sure—assuming the top of the deck is less than 24 inches (600 mm) from grade. In that case, you can make your railing out of anything you damn well want: steel cable; hand-whittled sticks; dental floss; pocket lint and unicorn breath. Or out of nothing. In general, building codes say that decks lower than 24 inches don’t need a railing (or a “guard” in code-speak).

If the distance between your deck and the ground is 24 inches or higher, that’s a different story. Sure, municipal building officials and inspectors do have some authority to interpret their provincial codes as they see fit, but Daniel Prest, the chief building official for Ontario’s Mississippi Mills, thinks it would be hard to make a case for steel cable. “Sometimes, if something meets the intent of the code, we say yes,” says Prest. “But here I’d say no.” Never mind the fact that under Ontario code, all guards must be vertical; cables can loosen over time, and could be pushed or pried apart. (He thinks steel cable combined with some other material, such as Plexiglas, could be okay, however.) 

“Typically, when it comes to steel cable, DIY designs don’t meet approval,” says Marty Herbert of the Columbia–Shuswap Regional District’s building and bylaw services department in Salmon Arm, B.C. But he’d probably give a cable railing the thumbs up if it were designed by a structural engineer

If your heart is set on steel cable, and you have a deck that requires a code-compliant railing, your best bet, as always, is to call your municipal building department and ask.

Got a question for Cottage Life’s Cottage Q&A? Send it to answers@cottagelife.com.

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