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Building Code Issues: Guards at Operable Windows

Guards at Operable Windows
Sections 12013.1 and 8

By Steven R. Winkel, FAIA, CASp and Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

Kerwin Says:

The requirement for the application and use of guards, previously called guardrails, are seldom totally understood by designers and enforcers. The basic intent is to provide fall protection when there is a change in elevation. The general rule is when there is a change in elevation of more than 30 inches, a guard is required.

The requirements for fall protection at operable windows codeshave been longingly debated. We have all heard stories of children falling out of windows. The requirement for protection in the form of guards, made it ways into the code in the 2006 Edition of the International Building Code. It was placed in Section 1405.13.12 Window Sills. To this day few designers even realize that this requirement exists. In the 2013 edition of the code, it has been moved to Section 1013.1 and .8 associated with guards, where it really should be.

The drawing on the right is taken from the book “Significant Changes to the CBC” published by ICC. The drawing outlines the basic dimensional requirements related to when guards are required at operable windows. The basic requirement is when operable windows have openings that are more than 4 inches and are within 36 inches above the interior finish floor and more than 72 inches above the exterior ground level.

I have yet to see a design that has operable windows that require protection install guards in these locations. Most designers choose to avoid installing guards by placing operable windows above the 36 inch interior height. Note that the 36 inch interior height was increased from previous codes, which was 24 inches above the finished interior floor.

There is one possible condition that requires remembering, Section 1029 still requires Emergency Escape and Rescue windows in some R/Residential Occupancies. The sills of such openings are required to be within 44 inches of the interior floor level. As long as the operable rescue window is above 36 inches, protection or guards will not be required.

Guards are never the absolute answer to fall protection. What is in the code may be only providing a false sense of security related to falls. People will still climb guards to get a better view. There have been attempt to codify language to make guards unclimbable (or harder to climb), but there have never be an agreement as to what that language should be.

Editor’s Note: I’ve been told that the above 36” requirement does not apply to single-family- dwellings — verify to be safe.