A nice inviting porch is a very common feature in new construction and remodeled homes. Whether you need to install a railing depends on local building codes. Even if you are required to install a porch railing, there are plenty of designs that will enhance your home's curb appeal in metal and wood
Porches and Steps- what's required for safety
According to the International Residential Building Code (IRBC) 2007, section 312.1, a railing is not required if the distance from the top of the porch to finished grade is 30 inches or less. This requirement applies to any point on the porch. For example if one side has a severe drop off and exceeds 30 inches, you would need a railing on that side, but not necessarily on a side that is less than 30 inches. In addition, if there are 4 risers (steps) going up to the porch, a rail is required for the stairs.You'll notice below that there are only 3 steps to our porch. We elected to place hand rails on each side since we some elderly family members whose safety is important.
Generally the height of the railing has to be 36 to 42 inches high on a porch. With steps, the height is 36 to 42 inches from the nose of the step. Also the spacing or distance between the rails or pattern has to be small enough so that a 4-inch sphere can not pass through it. A good document that illustrates some of these requirements is at http://www.city.spearfish.sd.us/pdf/deckrequire.pdf [PDF]. Remember that your local building code will apply.
The building code may not require a railing, but that does not necessarily mean that you should not install one. In some cases, a porch railing may improve the curb appeal of the home. A lot depends on the architectural features of the front of the house and how the porch columns look. Planters, hanging baskets and outdoor furniture can also improve the look of porch.
A lot depends on who is living in the home and the drop off from the top of the finished grade to the top of the porch. For example, if your family members or visitors can not negotiate a 24-inch drop off, then a railing may be a good idea.
What we did
If we had our way, we would have preferred not to have a railing on our porch. We liked the uninterrupted view like the one below. [This is not our home]
However, we were 30 to 36 inches above the finished grade. That said, we opted for a wrought iron railing. We think it's pretty attractive and used the same design on the steps as well. Painted black, the railing provides a very nice architectural feel to the porch and the steps and in our opinion does not detract from the porch. We especially liked the horizontal row of circles. Take a look.
We're partial to metal railings. Virginia Railings and Gates will give you an idea of what's available. Our metal railing was fabricated by Ivy Welding in Arlington Virginia from photographs that we took of homes in the area.