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Retaining wall guardrail requirements:
This article describes the requirement for guard railings along the top of many retaining walls. We cite model building codes, individual U.S. state building codes, and we give photo examples of good, bad, and ugly or downright dangerous guard railings, or walls that should have had a guard railing.
This article series describes types of privacy walls, retaining walls and retaining wall guard railing requirements, guard railing construction and building codes, and critical safe-construction details for retaining wall guardrails.
We include definitions of important retaining wall terms such as wall surcharge, and we provide diagnostic descriptions & photographs of types of damage to retaining walls & privacy walls.
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Details about guard railing designs, codes & requirements for use at retaining walls are here at RETAINING WALL GUARDRAIL CODES.
As detailed in Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction: The International Residential Code (IRC) requires a minimum 36-inch-high guardrail for all decks, balconies, or screened enclosures more than 30 inches off the ground.
For child safety, the balusters or other decorative infill must be spaced less than 4 inches apart (a 4-inch-diameter ball should not pass between the balusters). The railing in our photo meets this requirement.
Some communities allow horizontal steel cables as guard railings at the top of retaining walls, as we discuss below.
The top rail for a guardrail can be a 2x6 either flat or on edge. Use the longest pieces you can find—a continuous railing is best. However for a hand railing on stairs, both flat and vertical 2x lumber are unsafe and violate good stair railing design because they cannot be grasped during a fall.
Examples of Inadequate Retaining Wall Guardrails
At above left we illustrate a wooden retaining wall that appears to have been constructed from recycled railroad ties and without anchoring extensions behind the wall.
You will also note the open railings that are not child-safe.
At left we illustrate more versions of inadequate or unsafe guardrailings, first at a retaining wall and second in a shopping center, but using a cable design that some communities approve for use along the top of retaining walls as well.
This retaining wall guard rail is a child hazard because of its large openings and horizontal cross members, one of which had fallen away at the time of our inspection.
This retaining wall also has a surcharge from vehicles that park nosed right up to about 12" from the wall edge.
But the stones were so massive and so well drained that in our OPINION the surcharge from vehicles, snow, and frost, would not threaten this wall structure.
Our guardrail photos (below) show an attractive railing with horizontal cables intended to permit a nice view of the Brooklyn NY skyline.
We also demonstrate how easily the cables can be separated as well as how attractive this guard railing is to children.
In our OPINION this is an unsafe railing design.
Question: can seating serve as a protective safety railing at decks, porches, or outdoors near a high retaining wall?
Subject: 30" railing: If there is a seat wall and a planter between an upper level terrace and a retaining wall with a height greater than 30”, can the railing be eliminated? Please see attached sketch. - M.B.
Reply: OPINION about using seating as a safety barrier on decks, porches, or outdoor surfaces near retaining walls
I have certainly seen a number of high decks (not quite your case) that had continuous seating at the perimeter and no other railings. I expect that ultimately the building code compliance inspector will decide the issue locally.
A concern might be that even though the seating can prevent someone from stumbling and falling off of the raised area, it would not stop a child from climbing right over - unless there were seat backs were high enough and made of vertical balusters rather than the typical horizontal materials.
Taking a look at your sketch (above left), as drawn, the same concept seems to apply: you may have protection against an adult trip and fall over the retaining wall provided by some space (say six feet) between the "seat wall" and the "planter wall" (a retaining wall). But this design does not provide child safety protection nor protection for someone walking in or working in that inner space (having stepped over the seat wall).
If this area is residential occupied outdoor space, I would be surprised if a building code inspection would accept the design you show: the "seat wall" is just 18" high, easily climbed over by a child; there is no safety railing at the planter wall above the drop off - or are you planning to install a tall, impenetrable solid-growth hedge in the space where you show a shrub? That might be an acceptable alternative.
Our photo (above left) of a high retaining wall without a guard railing (left) illustrates an approach using dense shrubbery as a safety barrier at a property in New York State. That a lot of water is penetrating this retaining wall is obvious in both photographs.
Typical building codes including local code interpretations that address the question of need for safety railings near high retaining walls give some latitude to the local building inspector.
Also see CODES for STAIRS & RAILINGS where we provide additional detail on railing requirements for stairs, landings, balconies, etc.
Question: Do I need a standard guard railing atop a ten-foot high retaining wall and do I need a hand railing along stairs that will access the wall top?
I have a landscape retaining wall, not connected to a building (an accessory structure U), that forms a level area of about 250+ square feet. The retaining wall is 10+ feet at it highest point.
By Code, does it have to have a guard at the top with 4" sub-rail spacing?
And do the stairs leading to it have to have a handrail?
I'm under the impression that guards are only specified for buildings and associated structures and we can do a guard rail that doesn't conform to the 4" spacing (or even not have one)? Am I reading this correctly? - M.J., Monterey CA
Reply: We recommend that a publicly-accessed ten foot high retaining wall and stairs accessing its top should have standard guard railings
Definition of Exposed Retaining Wall Height Affects Building Permit Requirements
Why do retaining wall definitions and terms matter in discussing retaining wall building permits and heights? Well what's the actual height of the retaining wall.
The exposed height of a retaining wall is the height of the vertical grade difference between the upper ground level and the lower ground level that are to be separated by the retaining wall. And of course since most lots are not dead level, you'll use the highest vertical grade difference to describe your retaining wall.
Folsom explains that including the 12-inch thick footing in measuring the wall and considering that the footing itself is buried, a a cantilever design retaining wall that has a total height of four feet (the UBC code requirement for a permit) actually has just three feet of exposed retaining wall height. (You'll need to adjust this analysis if your retaining wall footing is buried still deeper).
The result is that the [Folsom CA] Planning, Inspections and Permitting Department interprets UBC §106.2, item 5 [at what height does a retaining wall require a building permit] as follows:
This specification on the requiring of a building permit for retaining walls is common in most jurisdictions though some municipalities require a permit for lower walls over just 24". However the requirement of a building permit does not mean that a the building official will require a guardrail along the wall top.
Your retaining wall is over ten feet in height, and most likely over nine feet in exposed wall height. Therefore you will surely have to comply with guardrail and stair railing requirements that may be set by your local building inspector.
Access to Retaining Wall Top Areas May Affect Code Requirements for Guard Railings
In your retaining wall question, because you indicate that there will be a stairway to the upper area, that indicates that the area at the upper area retained by the retaining wall is intended to be accessed by people and to me certainly means that in addition to stair railings (you wouldn't build a ten foot high stair with no railings, right?), if pedestrians are walking along the wall top, surely the local code officials are going to require a guard railing.
As you're located in California you will want to check California building code requirements as well as any local community additions or modifications to the California code pertaining to guard railings at retaining walls and similar elevated locations, independent of building stairs landings and railings and guardrailings on those structures.
In examples cited earlier in this article, in some communities guard railings are required at retaining walls as low as 2.5 feet above the lower level. Most likely, for a retaining wall that is four feet tall or higher in California, or three feet in height depending on the retaining wall surcharge we defined above, you'll be required to obtain a building permit and local code officials will inspect for code compliance the retaining wall as well as its safety guard railings and access stairs.
Exceptions to stair and railing standard code requirements are often allowed for areas not publicly accessed such as maintenance lofts in commercial buildings.
Safety Concerns at Retaining Walls
There are safety concerns at any retaining wall such as lawn mowers rolling over the retaining wall or pedestrian falls. Also requirements for guard railings at retaining walls may vary by area usage, for example industrial use is cited just below:
[Click to enlarge any image]
You'll also notice that some communities allow simplified guard railings along retaining walls, using cables in place of (safer) vertical balusters spaced 4" on center. And earlier in this article you'll see our photograph of kids climbing on [and later] between flexible horizontal cables in a guard railing in a shopping center. Our OPINION is that where there will be public access, such railings may be unsafe.
Retaining Wall Safety Hazards are Real: serious injury report
Reader Query: 12/15/2014 [Anon] Wrote
What a terrible accident. In the article above I discuss this question, but the final legal authority is the building inspector. If a permit was required in the first place, and if s/he approved the retaining wall as is without a guardrail then one can make a safety argument but it's probably difficult to make a successful legal argument as in my OPINION very often the courts take the easy path of just focusing on "was it legal".
What do your local building codes or state or provincial codes say? - DF [Correspondence has continued; photo contributed by the reader. - Ed.]
Other Retaining Wall Accident Reports
30 April 2015: a reader from a mid-western U.S. state reported that his daughter suffered permanent injury after being pushed off of a retaining wall along a school playground. Quoting from personal email [used with permission] [Click to enlarge any image]
I'm certainly sorry for what happened to your daughter. I have encountered several difficulties around the topic of guardrails along retaining walls where accidents have occurred:
Generally the requirement for guardrailings along the top edge of retaining walls are not clearly spelled out in most building codes though they do make appearance in some of the model codes. This excerpt is from the BOCA model code
Where retaining walls with differences in grade level on either side of the wall in excess of 4 feet (1219 mm) are located closer than 2 feet (610mm) to a walk, path, parking lot or driveway on the high side, such retaining walls shall be provided with guards that are constructed in accordance with Section 1021.0 or other approved protective measures.
My OPINION is that the code writers were anticipating locations where people are likely to walk.
Utah Codes & Building Permits for Retaining Walls
At least currently, the Salt Lake City code requires a building permit for retaining walls that are over two feet in height. We'd hope that the city will require a guardrail on such walls where public access is anticipated. [ http://www.slcgov.com/building/faqs ]
Provo Utah requires permits for retaining walls that are four feet or more in height - another example of inconsistency with Salt Lake City but in fact the Provo code is consistent with the Utah state building code section 1806 and other paragraphs.
But "requires a building permit" does not answer the question of whether or not the local building department is going to require a guardrail. I find the code quiet on that point.
Some local Utah codes (Highland City UT) discuss guardrails in more detail but we see that the discussion requiring guardrailings focuses on decks, stairs, balconies. Typically where guardrails are required, they are specified for decks (for example) that are 30" or more above ground level.
Building Code Requirements (or not) for Guardrails On Retaining Walls
Earlier we noted that various building codes require a building permit for retaining walls over a minimum height of 30", while some specify that a permit is required for retaining walls over 24" tall (Salt Lake City Utah in the U.S) and still others don't require a permit until the retaining wall is over four feet high (Provo Utah).
Typically where guardrails are required, they are specified for decks (for example) that are 30" or more above ground level. [International Residential Code - model code IRC R312.1 Guards ] and discussion of retaining walls is not included.
In sum, the requirement that the builder obtain a building permit for these taller retaining walls does not mean that the building official will require that a guardrail be installed. However many architects, engineers, and some code officials will recommend the installation of guardrails on retaining walls where public access is likely.
The following excerpt is from a BOCA model code:
Building Codes & Standards for Guardrailings that Can Assist in Planning for Guards on Retaining Walls
Please note that although specifications for guard railings are described, the following model code citations do not explicitly address guardrailings along retaining walls retaining walls.
Note: GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS discusses codes & specifications for guard raillings such as used on balconies, decks, stairs, and landings.
ICC Model Code for Guardrailings [ under Means of Egress ]
IRC Model Code
Other Railing & Guardrail Standards
ASCE 7 Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures
ANSI A 117.1 Guidelines for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities
ASTM E 894 Test Method for Anchorage of Permanent Metal Railing Systems and Rails for Buildings
NFPA 101 Life Safety Code
Example California Building Code Citations for Retaining Walls
Two example CA code citations for retaining wall safety protection are included below; the first, as you'll see, is from workplace requirements but it illustrates some of the safety concerns with falls at outdoor retaining walls.
At CA 3210 Subchapter 7. General Industry Safety Orders Group 1. General Physical Conditions and Structures Orders Article 2. Standard Specifications
(b) Other Elevated Locations. The unprotected sides of elevated work locations that are not buildings or building structures where an employee is exposed to a fall of 4 feet or more shall be provided with guardrails.
Where overhead clearance prohibits installation of a 42-inch guardrail, a lower rail or rails shall be installed. The railing shall be provided with a toe board where the platform, runway, or ramp is 6 feet or more above places where employees normally work or pass and the lack of a toeboard could create a hazard from falling tools, material, or equipment.
§3209. Standard Guardrails  describes of how guard rails should be constructed, including materials, spacing, strength and support. Similar specifications are given beginning
Retaining Wall Articles
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