One of the most visible and important design considerations in today's shopping environment is the glass handrailing that protects shoppers at higher levels and directs traffic.

A host of systems are available and the design specifications are many, so where is a specifier to begin? The answer is with the project.

The critical system elements Although some specifications, such as 42-inch height requirements from the floor, are common to most glass handrails, many factors are specific to the project. These include:

* linear footage, or the amount of glass railing;

* number of splices, corners and end caps;

* and special environmental considerations, such as the base or floor materials, the curving needed and the surrounding details - columns for instance - that will interrupt the railing.

In projects where a consistent aesthetic design is needed for different locations, a systems approach works best. That is, systems are developed in which the components work in conjunction with each other.

Glass rail component systems have components precision-engineered so that different parts work in different situations and locations, but all components are designed to fit together. This creates smooth connections for splices, corners and end caps. Coordinating base material, tubing, brackets, fittings and accessories provide finishing design details.

In other projects, the challenge is in customizing an affordable, quality handrail solution that meets the performance criteria and requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Design intent The place to start when considering options is with the original design intent of the project. The various components of glass systems are designed not only for different strength, code and design requirements, but also to give a different feel to each project.

For example, for a county courthouse renovation project, Ricks Glass Co. in Savannah, Ga., needed a system for the second floor that fit in with the early 1900s feel of the renovation but was stronger than the wooden railing on the ground level. A powdercoated brass handrailing system with tempered glass for strength fit the bill. It also brought the added benefit of discouraging people from leaning over the railing, because people hesitate to lean on glass systems, even though they are much stronger than wood.

Code requirements, which vary from state to state, county to county and as application to application, are critical when choosing components and entire systems. For example, at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, a special railing and basing was required for an inch-thick glass system put together by R.C. Aluminum to meet stringent load requirements but provide maximum viewing capability.

Ease of installation and project scheduling also should weigh heavily in the choice of system, because any factor that speeds up the project and assures that the job is done well improves the outcome of the construction.

One reason Ricks Glass chose the system it used in the courthouse was that it was easy to successfully put together and install. The top cap had a three-point opening where the handrail would slide through and the vertical members would attach in a T-fit. While all the joints fit tightly, they weren't so tight that they were difficult to join. It was very easy, explains C. Austin Turner, project manager.

Choosing a supplier Fast-track construction schedules demand response-driven suppliers who understand the penalties that missed deadlines bring. With so many component su ppliers on the market, it's important to know which companies maintain an inventory of products that can be adapted quickly to specific project timelines.

At the Miami arena, dividers that would serve both as partitions for the arena suites and provide maximum visibility were needed, explains Joe Ligua, project manager. The suites required a system with a strong base but a minimum top cap, and the company needed it in a hurry. In this case, rather than shopping around, R.C. Aluminum selected the system provider based on recommendations. The partition installation required thick glass and specially developed base railing and customized clamps.

In addition, suppliers must be selected who can deliver the product as promised, which often means talking to other satisfied customers.

Ligua explains that the product choice sometimes comes down to the delivery schedule. The sales staff should be able to indicate the lead time and guarantee on-time delivery.

Ricks Glass' C. Austin Turner agrees that delivery time is often a deciding factor these days because demand for many products has increased to the point that it has doubled and tripled delivery times.

Finding the right supplier with a reputation for good delivery often involves finding out who has contributed to other successful projects.

Word-of-mouth is very important to us, says Ron Pace of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Hallmark Vinyl Improvement, who were dealing with a tight schedule for a cruise ship project specifiying a bottom rail system and special clamps for the lifeboat stations. Date of delivery and quality were so important that they became the deciding factors over price, Pace says.

Choosing the right system involves myriad details, but the wrong system or the wrong supplier could lead to liabilities. To get the best return on your investment, you need to find cost-efficient products that will best serve the installation needs and project schedule.