Porch railing height and porch design are extremely important.
The height of your porch railing will determine if your house has curb appeal or is just a clown house.
Porch railing height of 3 feet or more will destroy the look of your house and all your hard work.
Forget about your beautiful architectural features and great paint colors if you choose poorly here – you’ll have a clown house!
The porch railing height sets the tone for everything else. The building code in your community will have a big impact on the choices you have for your porch. Let us explain the issues and show what you can do to have beautiful porch designs and curb appeal.
Porch Building Code, Permits, and Grief!
A building code, as stated by Wikipedia, is a set of rules that specify the minimum acceptable level of safety for constructed objects such as buildings and non-building structures. The main purpose of building codes are to protect public health, safety and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings and structures. The building code becomes law of a particular jurisdiction when formally enacted by the appropriate authority.
Building Codes vary by state. Municipalities are usually required to follow the codes set by the state. There are, however, most code inspectors who interpret the code to their own liking and have the authority to do so. This prerogative has always caused the homeowner additional grief.
I recommend that you first find out what your local building code requires before planning any work on your porch. If you question that code, you should contact your state agency (Dept. of Community Affairs) to find out what the official definition of the code entails. That doesn’t mean that you will get your way, but you may have a legitimate argument. There is a very good chance the actual state code is less strict than what local enforcement states. Your state rules over your local code.
When do you need a building permit?
A building permit is required when the scope of work is of a structural nature. For example, if you make repairs to your porch floor, you will not need a permit unless it becomes structural.
What this means is that you can replace your porch floorboards without a permit, but when you need to replace the boards under the column or post, that column or post that supports the porch roof will have to be removed. This now becomes structural work and triggers the requirement of a building permit.
If a building permit is required merely to repair the porch floor, then you will also be required to bring your entire porch up to code. That means you will be required to replace your porch railing with one that is permitted by code – even if your porch railing is in perfect shape and does not need replacement. Besides the additional unnecessary expense, this can be a catastrophe for your home’s curb appeal and your neighborhood.
Building Code Requirements Can Destroy the Appearance of Your House
A porch is a very important feature on a house and must follow the architecture of the home. Many homes have low porch floors that were never designed to have a balustrade.
A balustrade consists of the entire railing. The top hand rail, the lower foot rail and the balusters (spindals etc.) between the rails.
In these cases, adding a balustrade will NOT necessarily improve the overall appearance. I would suggest leaving it as it is. The architecture does not warrant balustrade design.
There are building code requirements for a porch:
In the USA, if your porch floor is less than 30 inches high from the ground, a porch railing is NOT required by code.
In Canada the maximum height from the ground is 24 inches.
If your porch floor is over the heights stated, the code requires a balustrade – porch railing.
The problem is that the building code porch rail height must be at least 36 to 42 inches. Well, that may not sound high to you but in almost all cases that is entirely too high!
Your historic railing is perfectly legal since it is grand-fathered to code. Replace it or make structural changes and you’re introducing new problems.
Porch Railing Height vs. Building Code
You must follow the architecture of your house to determine the porch railing height. The sill of the window looking out on your porch can determine the height of the top railing from the porch floor. Although all features on a building are based on the classic orders of architecture, the simplest and most logical method is to use your window as a guide.
The top of your porch railing should never be higher than the top of the window sill.
That may mean that your original porch railing is only 24 inches high above the porch floor (a common height). When looking out the window from indoors, the porch railing and balusters should never block any of your view.
Building codes exist to protect the public. True, someone may fall off the porch and spill their drink all over their nice clean shirt. In the interest of public safety, I would advise that you do not plant rose bushes at the base of your porch in the event your guests take a tumble. The trend of forcing homeowners to live in a protective bubble comes at a great cost – the loss of curb appeal! Careful, a padded room is next!
Balustrade designs with a porch railing that is architecturally wrong – higher than the window sill – gives the appearance of one of those fun-house mirrors or a clown wearing pants pulled way up high. Your porch railing – balustrade looks stretched out and abnormal.
Your porch is an outdoor room to enjoy. The balustrade design must match and compliment the architecture of your house. It should not be a cage to keep you on the porch.
Here are some examples.
Doesn’t the house in the picture above left look like there’s a baby crib attached to the front? This porch railing needs to be shrunk back down. Both the porch railing and Marilyn Monroe’s head appear abnormal. Beauty is lost – turned into something unappealing and frightening. Forget curb appeal here.
NOTE : I think you should remove one of the above pictures.
You might get confused looking at this house. With the cage-like railing you may think you’re visiting the zoo. It’s not a zoo, it’s a Clown House.
This “high-water” railing makes homes that could be aesthetically pleasing into a Clown House.
This could be a very attractive porch. The width of the balusters and the spacing between them are just right.
BUT – the top rail should be about 2 times thicker, and of course the entire railing is way too high.
The columns are not original, but seem like good quality replacements. Notice that the square – lower portion of the column (pedestal) is higher than it should be to accommodate a higher railing.
It looks like a lot of money was spent for an unsatisfactory result. This homeowner really did try, but building code prevailed at a very high cost – the cost of appearance. Not to mention the landscaping needs work!
As you can see this railing overpowers the house. The top of this railing seems to meet the window sill, however. When viewing from an angle the top may appear higher than it really is.
So the porch railing meets the window sill as I’ve been saying. It should be architecturally correct. But look how out of proportion it seems! Why does it look wrong when it should be right?
What happened here is that the original window was replaced with a larger window and installed much higher than it should be architecturally. This was probably done in the 1950’s in an effort to modernize the home. The homeowners probably also updated the front door at that time but recently replaced it with one that is an old Victorian style. Guess they can’t make up their mind.
The point to understand here is that all features must work together on a house. Wrong windows do not make a right railing. There are rules for window sill heights that affect the railing heights, and affect the overall balance of the house. And yes, this harmony (or disharmony) transfers over to how you see the house next door.
In the image to the right, the floor-to-ceiling windows are 8 inches from the porch floor.
No – I do not recommend a mini balustrade.
What you see here is correct and the exception to the rule.
If your windows are this low, use a 24-25 inch railing height.
In this example, the rail height is only 25 inches above the floor.
Although the windows are much lower, the balustrade still appears very attractive and in proportion to the house. The balustrade design is architecturally and historically correct.
The shrubberies should be kept lower, however. Don’t hide something so nice.
Porch Designs with Curb Appeal vs. Building Code – Your Best Options
If Your House Is In A Historic District
The International Building code does have a clause that says:
3407.1 Historic Buildings The provisions of this code relating to the construction, repair, alteration, addition, restoration and movement of structures, and change of occupancy shall not be mandatory for historic buildings where such buildings are judged by the building official to not constitute a distinct life safety hazard.
If your house is individually listed as historic or is part of a historic district, you are safe from building code requirements. First speak to your town’s Preservation Commission for approval and obtain any other helpful advice they may have. They may even recommend a good carpenter. If they do, terrific, but please DO NOT depend on them being totally knowledgeable.
Please exercise caution here. There are many preservation commissions that have a thorough understanding of historic porch design and can really guide you. Most, unfortunately, do not! Many commission members join because they like to watch “This Old House”.
Every preservation commission will have an “A level” commission member. That member may be a licensed architect. Please do not get a false sense of security. In my state-wide experience in New Jersey, I have seen many commission architects act as if they were developers and really have no clue about historic buildings and their design. Here is a story about a bad HPC and their architect.
Having a house in a historic district provides security in knowing that the integrity of your neighborhood will remain the same as time goes by. When you look out your window today, you know you will enjoy the same view tomorrow. Your investment is safe, while homeowners in unprotected neighborhoods will see changes and may be forced to move as the houses on their street slowly lose their charm. The purpose of a commission is to protect your investment – hopefully your local historic preservation commission functions as it’s supposed to.
If your preservation commission does not allow the lower railing, contact your State Historic Preservation Office for assistance. Really – don’t give up here!
Contact us if you would like a mock-up, a graphic image of a new historically correct porch to show your HPC for approval.
If Your House is NOT in a Historic District
If your house is not individually listed as historic or is not in a historic district, then you are officially required to purchase a building permit and follow your municipal building code requirements which may destroy the appearance of your house.
You should first investigate to see if your house is eligible for Historic Register Listing. If it is eligible, a modification to your porch will not only harm your curb appeal, but may prohibit future eligibility. You can then apply to register your home as historic. Homeowners can benefit from this listing with code issues such as this as well as a higher resale value.
There are various categories for historic homes over 50 years old and too much information to explain here. Play it safe and think of your house as valuable and historic.
If your house does NOT fall under the protection as “historic”, don’t give up. You may be able to convince your municipality to understand the importance of your homes historic integrity and its benefit to the appearance of the neighborhood.
Your home can be locally significant, having an architectural style representing a time when there was expansive growth due to a new factory constructed nearby, for example.
You do however, have three options.
One choice you have is to build an architecturally correct porch railing, paint it, and then quickly install it without a permit and risk the possibility of being fined. If questioned later, and if the carpenter did a good job and it looks original, the code inspector may think it is a well maintained original railing that is grand-fathered by code.
The other option is to build an architecturally correct porch railing with a building permit, but modify the railing temporarily to pass building code inspection. This is very simple to do as you will see in the image below.
Your first priority, as a steward for an old home, and a good neighbor, is to have an architecturally correct railing. Your second priority, if you so choose, is to pass building code approval.
Here is an example to follow.
There is a similar example shown for porch railing height here. Scroll down page.
Building Code: Your rail height must be 36 inches or more. There cannot be any space of more than 4 inches. Remember to first check with your local building code department for the specific requirements in your municipality.
In this example, an architecturally correct railing height for this house is 27.25 inches or lower. This places the rail even with the window sill.
Therefore, this hand rail must be 8.75 inches higher to meet the building code requirement of 36 inches from the porch floor (36-27.25=8.75). This is what you need to do:
Step 1) Construct an architecturally correct balustrade with a railing height of 27.25 inches (your window height) or default to 24″, to match the architecture of the house. Once this balustrade is completed, additions can be made for Building Code.
Step 2) Install a 2″x 3″ or 2″x 4″ piece of lumber parallel to the top hand rail with the top of that piece being 36 inches high. Use wood blocks or fasteners to attach it to the hand-rail below. This is the “code rail”. Your railing height is now up to the 36″ code. Well – almost to code.
However, there is now a 6.75 inch gap between the architectural rail and the code rail.
(8.75″ – 2″ = 6.75″) (8.75 goal height minus 2″ lumber)
A 4 inch gap is the maximum space allowable by code. Yes, this is another requirement to remember.
Step 3) To correct this, a 1 x 1.5 inch strip of wood should be attached to the support blocks. You will then have a space of 3 inches on one side and 2.75″ on the other side.
Remember – this is just temporary. There is no need to paint it. Upon building approval, dismantle the code rail and seal up all the holes from the screws you removed. Paint the repairs to be sure the new, architecturally correct rail is protected from the elements.
For those of you who may not be comfortable removing the upper “code rail”, follow the instructions as above except use a pipe or thin metal rail instead of wood. For a secondary rail constructed of pipe, the code permits a narrower size. Be sure to paint these attachments BLACK so they are minimally visible and not match the color of the main balustrade.
This option comes from one of our readers. Create a raised bed around your porch. Let’s say your porch is 6 inches above the height requiring a railing. All you need to do is to add 6 inches (do 7 inches to be safe) of dirt around your porch to create a raised bed. Surround this dirt with rocks to keep it contained and add some plants. Now the ground is higher and code does not require a railing. You can install any type or size balustrade you want! The photo our reader sent looked quite nice. Their new balustrade is architecturally correct and the permit was approved.
If the dirt you add is against the lattice on your porch skirt it can cause rot. Either rebuild your lattice to the new height or just leave it as is until you get your permit approved. Then remove the dirt and replant the plants. If this makes you uncomfortable, keep the rocks that surrounded the previously raised bed and no one will know the height of the dirt behind the rocks surrounding your porch. (Thank you Stephany W.)
In the example above, the top of the balustrade is 25 inches above the floor. Minimal repairs are permitted to the porch as long as repairs do not trigger a building permit.
If a permit were required, the current balustrade would not be allowed. The handrail is too low and there is too much space between the balusters. Replacing this rail to code would block the windows, looking just awful.
This historic balustrade design could remain and be temporarily modified to code as shown in the above option. Temporary wood slats would need to be added vertically to fill in the space between the balusters. Being on the Historic Register or in a Historic District would avoid these problems.
Porch Railing Height Before & After
Here are some before and after photos of my house. Unfortunately the original 1910 balustrade was removed by the previous owner and replaced with an ugly porch railing at a height to code.
The following photos show the “code” railing on the left being replaced with a new architecturally correct porch railing on the right.
The code at the time must have been 32 inches because that was the height of the railing on the left. The new rail was made 5 inches lower. It is now 27 inches from the floor to the top of the railing.
In the example above, the porch rail height is just a few inches too high. The balustrade is also entirely too thin, giving the appearance of a balustrade made of toothpicks. Although I am sure it was expensive, it looks very cheap.
The balustrade on the right was installed graphically using sawn balusters to better match the Victorian style of the house.
If you like this we can do the same for your house. Contact us for consulting services to see the curb appeal possibilities for your home.
From Shauna NC: Hi there! We do not have a historic house–ours was built in 2004–but due to the original porch being constructed improperly and rotting off after only a few years, we had to redo it. One of the things I was most excited about was finally getting lower railings that building codes had prevented when it was first constructed. I hated sitting down and having handrail at eye level! Your website, plus a trip to my local historic district with a tape measure, helped me determine an appropriate height. Our front windows go almost to the floor, and your site was the only one that addressed this. I realize our house is a more recent build and misses the mark on some of the “correct” details and materials of the period it is trying to emulate, but simply lowering the railing made such a difference and instantly gave it an “older” feel that we like so much. I just wanted to share a before and after and let you know your advice helped improve a “new old house” to have 100% more curb appeal. Thank you! I am so happy to sit outside and see over my railings now!
More Information About Porch Designs
National Park Service Technical Bulletin on Preserving Historic Wood Porches
The National Park Service – Department of Interior provides a Technical Preservation Service. Writers working under contract for the federal government have assembled more than 40 booklets designed to help owners and developers recognize and resolve common preservation and repair problems.
- Preservation Bulletin #45 provides information on Preserving Historic Wood Porches
- Evaluation and Case Studies of Porch Alterations – National Park Service
Porch Details for the Style of your Home
Here is a great article written by Brent Hull for the Old House Journal. Do you have a Colonial Revival, Victorian, Bungalow, etc. house and your porch is missing? Find out what style of porch features will be appropriate for your house style.
Go to: Porch details by the book
Make sure you check out Dan Miller’s site on Old House Porches.