Modular Balustrade Systems: Best Practice in Design and Construction
This article examines the use of modular balustrade systems in the context of Modern Methods of Construction. Please read on and get in touch if there is anything that you would like to discuss in more detail – our technical experts would be delighted to share thoughts and ideas with you.
Part 1 – Modular Balustrade Systems and Modern Methods of Construction
1a) Defining modular building
Many associate the term Modular Building with a re-locatable, self-contained structure or unit installed for temporary use, not upon a permanent foundation. However, a second, less commonly used definition relates to modular architectural products and systems with the following characteristics:
- A range of standardised modular components which are individually manufactured to a finished state at a factory, rather than fabricated and finished on site
- Finished components are delivered and assembled on site to form an overall installation, usually connected with a fixing system which is also standardised by the manufacturer, using dry works rather than hot works.
- The individual components are standardised, but when combined for a particular specification they represent a bespoke solution.
1b) Modern Methods of Construction
Modular Buildings Systems are intrinsically linked to Modern Methods of Construction and their key objectives. Modern Methods of Construction are designed to increase site efficiency and safety whilst reducing environmental impact. These objectives are primarily achieved by completing as much construction activity as possible off-site, a process which is one of the defining features of Modular Building Systems.
Part 2 – The Advantages of Modular Building and Modern Methods
2a) Reducing construction time
Reducing construction time addresses market demands for improved efficiency and better cost control:
- With components already manufactured and finished, modular systems dramatically reduce the time required on site in comparison to using traditional construction methods.
- The precise combination of components, angles and dimensions required for a scheme is defined and specified through consultation between the architect/designer and the manufacturer’s technical support – therefore survey, assembly and installation is the only time spent on site.
- Carrying out more work in factory conditions avoid exposure to delays on-site caused by adverse weather.
- From a financial point of view the shorter construction period allows a quicker return on investment for the client, and reduced overheads.
- Time saved is an especially valuable advantage in sectors like Education where build schedules are often tightly constrained by factors such as school timetabling.
2b) Reduced on-site disruption
- As the majority of construction work is carried out off-site, the impact to the existing site is significantly low.
- In comparison to traditional construction, there is a reduction in noise, dust, and light pollution and the site.
- Both contractor and client are able to approve the scheme before installation on site, reducing the amount of snagging and callbacks at a later stage.
- Off-site manufacture of complete modular solutions means that all materials arrive on site one large delivery in contrast to traditional construction methods, which often require many separate, smaller deliveries.
2c) Reduced Health & Safety risks
Modular construction Reduces Health & Safety risks in a number of ways:
- Carrying out construction in safer, more controlled factory conditions enables better risk management.
- Minimal site activity limits exposure to other site activities and their attendant Health & Safety risks.
- Eliminating the need for hot works such as welding reduces Health & Safety risk.
2d) Improved quality control
- Off-site construction in a factory-controlled environment enables higher degree of quality control with testing, prototyping and checking for uniform quality.
- With solutions fabricated on site, exposure to the British climate does not offer good working conditions for high quality workmanship. Manufacture in a factory provides much better working conditions.
- General experience in the UK suggests that off-site construction requires far fewer call-backs to address defects.
2e) Reduced Waste
Waste from construction is one of the principle waste streams to landfill sites. Manufacture in a factory allows far better management of the waste stream.
- Standardised finished components mean minimal or zero off-cuts and waste materials.
- Any waste or off-cuts that occur in a factory can be more easily collected and reused or recycled.
- Managing waste at factory stages reduces financial and carbon costs of waste disposal on site.
2f) Reduced environmental impact
Achieving more sustainable building requires the reduction of carbon emitted during the whole life-cycle of buildings, including that emitted during the processes of material extraction, manufacturing, delivery to site, construction process, maintenance and refurbishment, waste processing, demolition and recycling. All of the above advantages offered by Modular Systems also benefit the environmental impact of a development.
- Reduced site activity reduces the environmental impact on the locality
- Dry works construction consumes less energy than hot works construction.
- Dry works also require involve far less noise and atmospheric pollution than hot works.
- Reduced waste and landfill.
- Reduced carbon footprint from lighter site traffic.
Part 3 – Applying Modular Solutions in Balustrade Design
3a) Modular Balustrade
Balustrade is one of the more complex and variable architectural works. It often requires a wide variety of materials and as well as more time invested in achieving precise dimensions and angles. Therefore the aforementioned advantages of Modern Methods of Construction are magnified in comparison with the traditional methods of fabricating on-site.
3b) Meeting complex design requirements
With their standardise components, modular balustrade systems are often perceived to offer less design versatility than solutions fabricated on-site, especially in the refurbishment projects where an existing fabric may present awkward layouts and structurally restrictive environments. However, today’s most sophisticated modular balustrade systems adapt with ease:
- The range of components and options on offer is now vast enough to suit the most unusual or complex design permutations.
- Advanced forming technology can achieve virtually any curvature or angle necessary.
- With a flexible and collaborative approach to design, manufacturers can incorporate bespoke elements into a modular solution, ensuring that no specification is beyond their capabilities.
3c) Meeting Building Regulations
When choosing and specifying modular balustrade solutions, certain key performance criteria apply:
- The combination of components should be designed in accordance with BS6180: 2011 (the latest recommendations which replaced BS 6180:1999). BS 6180:2011 provides a comprehensive guide to the design, structure, height and strength of barriers, including recommendations on all materials used.
- Balustrade installations require strong load-bearing capabilities, especially in high-traffic areas – the stronger systems should provide up to 3kN load bearing capability.
- The solution must be suitable for its particular environment – for example, industrial environments are often better served by balustrade which is corrosion-resistant or, ideally, completely corrosion-proof.
Part 4 – Choice of materials in modular balustrade
Handrail and balustrade is primarily specified in aluminium (usually powder coated) and/or stainless steel. Use of wood railing has dramatically decreased due to its high maintenance: timber requires ongoing treatment to maintain its aesthetic, prevent absorption of bacteria and control infection. Structural glass solutions, requiring no stanchions, are also popular in certain environments.
4a) Aluminium – Natural Advantages
Aluminium is now an extremely popular choice of material for balustrade and offers a number of natural advantages:
- Lightweight yet durable – aluminium is one third of the weight of steel and easy to handle, thereby saving on manpower.
- Non-toxic – aluminium is an inert metal which is completely impermeable.
- Non-combustible – aluminium does not burn or aid combustion.
- Corrosion-free –aluminium will with time generate a protective oxide film coating with excellent resistance to corrosion.
- Aesthetically versatile – aluminium has an ability to accept different surface finishes such as anodising and powder coating.
4b) Aluminium – Recyclability and Carbon Savings
Assessment of environmental impact is now more sophisticated and encompass the full cradle-to-cradle life cycle approach. When preparing a specification it is essential to consider the responsible sourcing, effectiveness, durability, and the potential recycling of any material. The embodied carbon of a material needs to be considered over the lifespan of the material.
- Aluminium is a highly durable material with a predicted lifespan of 60 to 100 years and therefore is an appropriate solution.
- Aluminium is also 100% recyclable with no downgrading of its properties and very little energy required for re-melting. It can be recycled over and over again without loss of performance and it can be up-cycled if necessary.
- No ongoing maintenance is required, bringing further carbon savings to the lifecycle of a building.
4c) The benefits of powder coating aluminium
Aluminium balustrade manufactured off-site can be finished with powder coating prior to delivery. This brings a number of benefits:
- Powder coating is smooth, safe and warm to the touch – an ideal quality for handrails and balustrade.
- Powder coating is maintenance-free with an extremely durable non-chip finish.
- Applying a powder coated finish at the factory stage eliminates the time and energy which would be consumed by applying a finish on-site.
- Powder coated aluminium receives a high rating in the BRE Green Guide – in the Windows category its Summary Rating is A+ or A overall and rated A+ in the majority of the criteria.
- Advances in powder coating mean that aluminium can now be finished with the detailed appearance of natural wood grain, providing the traditional aesthetic virtues of timber without the environmental, hygienic and maintenance concerns associated with it.
4d) Stainless Steel
Stainless steel is also a popular material for contemporary balustrade solutions. Its key attributes include:
- It provides a high-aesthetic value which can be further enhanced by unidirectional polishing.
- It is extremely hard wearing – no ongoing maintenance is required, bringing further carbon savings to the lifecycle of a building.
- It is available in different grades to suit different environments as required – for example, typically Grade 316 for external use and Grade 304 for dry internal use. Grade 316 is also an ideal specification for swimming pools.
4e) Structural Glass
Structural glass requires no supporting uprights and therefore provides an ideal balustrade solution when seeking maximum visibility or a more ‘minimalist’ aesthetic style. Advances in design and manufacturing means that free-standing structural glass is now more stable and adaptable – and therefore more suitable for wider variety for environments and more demanding conditions:
- With glass toughened in accordance with BS EN 12159 1 (C)1 the stronger systems on the market offer load bearing capability of up to 1.5kN.
- A heatsoaking process applied at the factory stage can accelerate crystallisation, reducing the risk of potential breakages when the glass is in situ.
- The top of the glass can be secured by a toprail – ideally ovular or tubular aluminium which can be made warm-to-touch with powder coating.
- The bottom of the glass can be secured and extremely well stabilised by an F-shaped floor channel.
- Rubber seals integrated into the floor channel can insulate the glass and eliminate the need for the more traditional messy mastic detail.
- A handrail can be offset from the glass to cater for users at different heights.
- Low Iron glass options provide a noticeably clearer panel than the inherent green cast of standard clear float glass used in balustrade applications.
- Modular balustrade solutions offer numerous advantages for Modern Methods of Construction and their key objectives.
- Carbon footprint can be significantly reduced with the use of modular solutions.
- Superior modular balustrade systems offer a range of components and materials to suit any environmental conditions, design complexity or aesthetic preference.