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Fatal Balcony Collapse Leads to Inspections

Thursday, February 4, 2016

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Balconies throughout a California town may be some of the safest in the country now that all of them have been inspected in the wake of a balcony collapse last year that killed six.

A month after the fatal collapse on June 16, 2015, Berkeley City Council adopted the Exterior Elevated Elements Inspection Program that required inspection and certification of all city balconies by Jan. 14, according to The Daily Californian. The city also created a task force of engineers, architects and city officials to provide the council with structural recommendations.

Next week, the city will publish a report with the results of the new building safety codes and recommendations from the task force. City spokesperson Matthai Chakko told the newspaper that the report will be presented to council on Feb. 10.

Called the E3 program, the ordinance affected about 6,000 buildings in the California city. Berkeley sent thousands of letters to property owners believed to have elevated platforms such as balconies or decks, Chakko told the newspaper. He said city staff members have been tracking the responses in a database.

“We as a city want to make sure that properties in Berkeley are as safe as can be,” Chakko told the paper. “We now have the strictest standards for exterior structures in the state.”

Tragedy to Policy

The fifth floor balcony of the 176-unit Library Gardens apartment building snapped and fell shortly after midnight June 16, according to previous reports. Thirteen students who were celebrating at a birthday party plunged to the street below. Six of them died and seven were left with “life-altering injuries.”

Five of the six who died were from Ireland; the sixth had Irish-American citizenship, previous reports indicate. They were Ashley Donohoe, 22; Olivia Burke, 21; Eoghan Culligan, 21; Niccolai (Nick) Schuster, 21; Lorcan Miller, 21; and Eimear Walsh, 21.

All of the people injured or killed were students at the University College Dublin or the Dublin Institute of Technology. Many had been working in the San Francisco Bay area on internships, reports said.

Shortly after the incident, city building inspectors said the deck had severe dry rot, including on the joist ends where it tore away from the building. The outer beams of the balcony sustained “significant rot and decay,” but inner joists appeared in better shape, a 10-page report indicated.

The Library Gardens Building was eight years old. Segue Construction, of Pleasanton, CA, completed the building in 2007. Multiple reports have indicated that the contractor has been entangled in a number of lawsuits involving balconies and/or water intrusion.

Several lawsuits—both criminal against the companies involved and civil filed by families of the victims—have been filed since. Reports also came out indicating that previous residents of the apartment where the collapse occurred had reported mushrooms were growing as early as 2008. That, reports said, could indicate that water had been present shortly after the building was completed.

Positive Response

Despite the tragedy, The Daily Californian reports that several property owners have been happy that something positive has been borne out of it.

“I’m very appreciative of the E3 program,” Mary Oram, broker and property manager, told the newspaper. “Although it’s unfortunate that it was brought to light in such tragic way.”

The inspections at ERI Property Management—where Oram works—were a “good thing to spend money on,” Oram said. In the past six months, Oram told the paper that the company has had about 25 buildings inspected. Three evaluated properties needed repairs, including rebuilding five balconies.

Ray Kirby, a consultant of the failure-analysis firm Childress Engineering Services, told the paper that stricter building codes beyond what states require will often come from local jurisdictions.

“The fact that (Berkeley is) having an inspection program that’s ongoing can help,” Kirby said, adding that the frequency of inspections depends on “whatever the jurisdiction decides is needed and … what the community will accept.”

In the case of Berkeley, owners will need to have their inspections redone—and balconies recertified—every three years.

“We were very impressed with the diligence and the speed that the council took on this matter,” Stillwell said.

The paper also said that Berkeley City Council sent a letter to the California Building Standards Commission in July asking it to revise California Building Standards Code to require steel reinforcements on all new balcony designs.

   

Tagged categories: AIA Gold Medal; Building codes; Ethics; Government; Health and safety; Laws and litigation; Lawsuits; Safety

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