Glass Railings versus Metal Railings

Apr 12, 2024

Railings serve a critical role in commercial spaces, providing safety and accessibility while contributing to the overall aesthetic of the architectural design. With a multitude of materials and styles to choose from, making the right decision can be a challenge for architects. Two of the most popular materials for commercial railing systems are glass and metal railings, each offering distinct advantages in appearance and functionality.

In this article, we will review some of the benefits, functionalities, and visual appeal of both railing systems.  We will explore factors such as durability, maintenance, adaptability, and architectural style to guide architects in selecting the ideal railing solution for their specific commercial projects. 

Durability and Structural Integrity

When considering the durability and structural integrity of railing systems, both glass and metal railings have proven to be robust and reliable options for commercial projects. However, they each come with their own set of strengths and weaknesses:

Durability of Glass Railings

Modern glass railing systems must meet specific glazing safety standards. To meet these standards, either tempered or laminated glass is used. For laminated glass, glass with traditional PVB (Polyvinyl butyral) or SGP (SentryGlass® Plus) is used, with SGP offering a more rigid and increased structural performance. Although glass is highly durable it can be susceptible to scratches and chips, which may compromise their aesthetic appeal over time.

Durability of Metal Railings

Metal railings, including stainless steel, aluminum, and iron, are known for their high strength and resilience. They can withstand significant force and pressure, making them suitable for high-traffic commercial spaces. However, corrosion resistance varies depending on the specific metal type, so architects must consider the environment in which the railings will be installed to ensure long-lasting performance.

Maintenance and Care

Maintenance requirements differ between glass and metal railings, and understanding these differences is essential for making an informed decision:

Maintenance for Glass Railing 

The primary concern in maintaining glass railings is keeping them clean and free of streaks, fingerprints, and grime. Some products may require periodic sealing or the application of protective coatings to maintain clarity and prevent water spots. Customized systems with minimal hardware and fittings may reduce maintenance requirements by avoiding areas where dirt and debris can accumulate.


Maintenance for Metal Railings

Maintenance for metal railings largely depends on the specific material used and finishes applied. Stainless steel railings, for example, typically require minimal maintenance beyond occasional cleaning and polishing. Aluminum railings may need more frequent care due to their susceptibility to oxidation, which can be mitigated through the use of protective coatings. Wrought iron railings often require painting or refinishing to prevent corrosion and maintain their visual appeal. For more information on stainless steel railings, view GRECO’s AIA course on “Commercial Railing Designs & Stainless Steel”.


Design Flexibility

One of the most critical factors for architects to consider when selecting railing systems is design flexibility. The versatility of glass and metal railings presents opportunities to create railings that complement a wide range of architectural styles:


Designing with Glass Railings

Glass railings offer a sleek and modern aesthetic that can be easily adapted to various design styles. This material’s transparency allows for customization using etched or frosted patterns, colored or tinted glass, and different edge treatments. Post or frameless systems can also provide varied design options, resulting in railings that blend seamlessly or create striking focal points within commercial spaces.


Designing with Metal Railings

Metal railings offer immense design diversity, catering to both modern and traditional architectural styles. Options include sleek stainless steel, elegant wrought iron, lightweight aluminum, and more. Architects can select from an array of finishes, textures, and colors to create custom designs with distinctive visual impact. Additionally, metal railing components can be fabricated in various shapes and sizes, providing opportunities for unique and imaginative installations.


Sustainability and Environmental Impact

In today’s environmentally conscious world, architects must consider the sustainable aspects of their railing system choices:


Sustainability with Glass railings

The production of glass can be energy-intensive, but it is also a fully recyclable material, reducing its overall environmental impact. The transparency of glass railings can also benefit building occupants by maximizing natural light and reducing the need for artificial lighting, contributing to energy efficiency within commercial spaces.


Sustainability with Metal Railings

Metal railings are generally considered eco-friendly, as metals like steel, aluminum, and iron are infinitely recyclable without losing their inherent properties. Manufacturing processes for metal railings can have a lower carbon footprint than glass production, depending on the specific metal type and source. Lightweight and thermally efficient materials, such as aluminum, can further contribute to sustainability by reducing transportation impacts and facilitating energy-efficient building envelopes.


Code Compliance and Safety

When designing railing systems for commercial projects, architects must ensure their selections meet or exceed the applicable building codes and safety requirements:


Meeting Codes with Glass Railings

Tempered or laminated safety glass must be used for all commercial glass railing systems to comply with International Building Code (IBC) requirements. In addition to the glass type, other factors such as railing height, load resistance, and handrail configurations must be carefully considered, along with any local or state-specific regulations. GRECO’s article on Glass Guardrails and IBC Code Requirements shares guidelines and information about IBC requirements. 


Meeting Codes with Metal Railings

Compliance with IBC standards also applies to metal railings, including requirements for guardrail height, structural strength, and handrail graspability. For commercial buildings subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), metal railings must also meet specific accessibility guidelines, which may impact the choice of materials, finishes, and fittings.


Installation Methods and Costs

A comprehensive comparison of glass and metal railings must also consider their installation methods and associated costs:


Glass Railings Installation

Installation of glass railing systems can be more complex and time-consuming compared to metal railings. This is due to the need for precise measurements, handling of fragile materials, and customized fittings or hardware. Consequently, the installation costs for glass railings are often higher than their metal counterparts. However, manufacturers are continually developing innovative systems that simplify the installation process, which, in turn, can help to reduce costs.


Metal Railings Installation

Metal railing systems generally offer easier and more cost-effective installation, with fewer concerns regarding material fragility. Fabricated modular components can further streamline the installation process, reducing labor costs and minimizing construction timelines.


Material Innovations and Advancements

As new material developments and advancements emerge, architects have access to a broad range of innovative solutions for both glass and metal railings:


Glass Railings Advancements

Advancements in glass technology have resulted in stronger, more resilient materials like chemically strengthened glass, which offers increased impact and scratch resistance. Innovations in low-iron glass also provide enhanced clarity and color neutrality. Additionally, developments in solar control and bird-friendly glass can help architects create railing systems that are sustainable and considerate of the surrounding environment.


Metal Railings Innovations:

Innovations in metal fabrication and finishing technologies lend themselves to the continued evolution of metal railing design options. Processes such as metal 3D printing and precision laser cutting allow for intricate and highly customized railing components. Furthermore, advancements in corrosion-resistant coatings and environmentally friendly finishes provide architects with durable and sustainable metal railing choices.


Project-Specific Considerations

Depending on the type of commercial project, architects may need to consider factors such as building use, end-user demographics, and environmental conditions when selecting between glass and metal railings:


Glass Railings Considerations:

These railings may be an ideal choice for projects where visual appeal and unobstructed views are a priority, such as high-end hotels, retail spaces, or waterfront properties. However, they may not be well-suited to locations exposed to harsh weather conditions or frequented by individuals prone to causing damage, as these factors can compromise their appearance and longevity.


Metal Railings Considerations:

Metal railings offer a practical and versatile option for a wide range of commercial buildings, including office spaces, educational facilities, and multi-purpose complexes. Their durability and ease of maintenance make them well-suited to high-traffic environments and applications exposed to fluctuating environmental conditions.


Railing System Manufacturers and Suppliers

When deciding between glass and metal railings, architects should also consider the capabilities and reputation of various railing system manufacturers and suppliers:


Glass Railings Manufacturers and Suppliers:

There are several notable manufacturers and suppliers of glass railing systems, each offering unique solutions and a range of customization options. Architects should look for companies with a strong track record of quality and innovation, as well as those offering comprehensive support throughout the design, manufacturing, and installation process.


Metal Railings Manufacturers and Suppliers:

A wide variety of metal railing manufacturers and suppliers exist, catering to various architectural styles and project requirements. When selecting a metal railing provider, architects should consider factors such as material quality, fabrication capabilities, finish options, and overall experience within the industry.


Collaborative Design and Implementation

Regardless of whether architects choose glass or metal railings for their commercial projects, establishing open lines of communication and collaboration with the railing system manufacturer and supplier is vital for achieving a successful design outcome:

Glass Railings Design and Implementation:

Due to their precise installation requirements and customized design elements, it is crucial for architects to work closely with the glass railing system provider. This collaboration ensures that the finished product aligns with the design vision and adheres to all applicable safety and performance standards.


Metal Railings Collaborations:

Though the installation process for metal railings is often more straightforward, maintaining a collaborative relationship with the metal railing manufacturer or supplier is equally important. Effective communication ensures all necessary adjustments or customizations are made throughout the design and fabrication process, resulting in a railing system that not only meets but exceeds the project’s aesthetic and functional requirements.

The Ultimate Railing Solution for Commercial Projects

Both glass and metal railing systems offer numerous advantages and considerations for architects working on commercial projects. By taking into account aspects such as aesthetics, functionality, safety, maintenance, material advancements, project-specific needs, and overall lifecycle costs, architects can make informed decisions that cater to their unique project requirements.

It is essential to collaborate closely with railing system manufacturers and suppliers, and synergize with the various components of the architectural design. Considering the adaptability of the railing solution, inclusive design principles, and robustness against future needs and trends ensures that architects can create inspiring and enduring spaces.

To explore the diverse range of glass and metal railing solutions available for commercial projects and experience the difference that exceptional craftsmanship can make, visit GRECO. Partner with the experts in railing systems to bring your architectural vision to life and deliver innovative, safe, and aesthetically appealing environments that stand the test of time.