Home & Garden

About the House: Children, Falls And the Building Code

By Matt Cantor
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 06:17:00 PM

I have a major pet peeve (well, many major pet peeves, actually) with the building codes. They say far too little about places where people, particularly little people, can fall, and the area in which my knickers get most fully twisted concerns the accessibility of windows. 

Now this isn’t a new problem and the worst cases I see tend to be at houses of some longish tooth. Nonetheless, new houses continue to be built every day that lack what I consider to be adequate concern for child safety. 

The building code now says that windows may not be lower than two feet from the floor without adequate guards. Now, that’s 18 inches lower than the height for guardrails on the outside of the house. So, what’s different about running around on a deck versus playing “Incarcerate Your Little Brother” inside the house. Nuthin’. That’s my take on it. In fact, children spend more time inside the house than they do on decks and landings. We just took the railing heights for decks up from three feet to three and a half feet in the most recent version of the building code (2007) and that was unquestionably a response to a given number of falls from deck or porch railings.  

For a child with a center of gravity about two feet from the ground, the difference between two feet and three and half feet can be a serious matter. 

Children also play in ways that adults don’t. If a child has never had a serious fall, a low window is an exciting place to dangle and spy. A low-set window on a third story or even a second story over a concrete driveway may be high enough to be fatal, and while there are lots of things that we look for in houses that have a fairly mild downside, this isn’t one of them. You’re not going to care very much about the rot in the bathroom floor after a tragedy of this sort. Even the potential for a serious injury should garner more attention than issues of decay, wear and utility in our homes. 

For my money, any window that is lower than three feet on a wall should be the subject of special attention in the form of inaccessible locks (set high enough for children standing on tables or chairs) or guards that inhibit access. 

Guardrails come in a wide range of shapes and sizes and one thing about them that we often don’t think about is how “climbable” they are. Railings that run vertical are very hard to climb and they’re the preferred form. When we install rails horizontally, a railing becomes a ladder. If we have a grid, the result is the same. Do children like to climb and get a better view? Do they enjoy dangling their siblings over the edge just to see their parents change color? Of course they do. Kids are all explorers and given the chance, the next frontier will be simulated WWF belly flops from the deck onto the trampoline in the yard. 

So railings should be unclimbable, as best as you can manage, high (42 inches) and well secured. 

While this doesn’t have much to do with construction, I think it’s also important to consider the furnishings of decks, balconies and other places from which children might fall. If a bench is placed alongside a railing, that railing just got shorter. A child on that bench (or chair, table or box) may be standing where their center of gravity is higher than the remnant barrier and a simple loss of balance can be all that’s needed for dire results. 

Another nasty and often overlooked falling hazard is an accessible garage roof. We have lots of garages that are set into the hillside just behind the sidewalk. Since we tend not to think of garages as places to spend time (though many a client has asked me about the viability of decking over these structures), we tend not to put railings around these roof surfaces. Most are flat (or nearly so) and become places that we can amble across amidst our superhero adventuring. Though it is easy enough to fall 12 feet to the sidewalk below all by your own caped self, it’s much easier to achieve this sorry result with the aid of your evil mastermind friend from next door, or better still, with three wrestling superheroes (mine…mine...no it’s mine).  

So take a look around and see. Do you have a garage that can be easily mounted for play? A deck or accessible roof area that kids can easily climb upon that lacks any sort of guardrail? They’re out there and there are lots of them. Some aren’t accessible to small children but will be once the get a little older. 

While I don’t mind the idea of a chosen danger, I do feel that we should choose our poison. Many choose to ride motorcycles or jump out of airplanes. Actually, cars, in general, pose a much larger threat than anything we’re talking about here today. That said, eliminating unnoticed dangers and reducing our overall risk (especially for our children) is well worth the time and, at least a chunk of our money. 




Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.