Don’t Turn an Asset Into a Liability: How You Can Keep Your Multifamily Balconies Code Compliant and Safe
Building codes exist for a reason — to protect human health, safety and welfare. After a fatal balcony collapse in Berkeley in 2015, 20% of balconies, decks and other exterior elevated elements (EEEs) failed inspection.
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Your apartment balconies draw renters onto your properties with the promise of at-home outdoor leisure, fresh air, and extra room that can make even cramped units feel more spacious. A recent resident-facing study by J Turner Research revealed that residents would pay a $50+ rent premium to have a balcony, creating a concrete incentive to keep them safe, code compliant, and up to your brand standards. Turns out, if your balconies, decks and raised walkways — what the city of Berkeley calls Exterior Elevated Elements (EEEs) — are structurally deficient, it doesn’t matter how attractive they look on the outside.
In 2015 six students were killed and seven injured when the 5th-floor balcony they were standing on at an apartment building in Berkeley collapsed to the street during a birthday party. Forensic analysis of project documents and examination of the balcony remnants determined that the weight of the 13 students was actually not a factor in the tragedy, noting that the load was “well within the design limits of the balcony.” Rather, it was “dry rot damage… along the top of the cantilever balcony deck joists,” that resulted in the failure of the supports and the deadly incident.
The state investigation concluded that Segue Construction and its sub-contractors had neglected critical design specifications and failed to waterproof the balconies. Instead of plywood or pressure-treated supports, the company tried to cut costs by using water-absorbent wood like oriented strand board — an ultimately inadequate alternative. Lawsuits filed by the injured students and the victims’ families say the balcony would become so saturated with moisture on a recurring basis, they saw mushrooms growing on it. The property manager, the families allege, is liable for inaction, having never closed off the unsafe structure.
The consequences for Segue have been dire. Stripped of their contractor license and agreeing to a confidential settlement payment that the Irish times has reported is in excess of $20 million, Segue and seven of the 35 other contractors named in the suit face a long road to recovery. Multimillion dollar legal action against the owner manager was settled in late 2017 for an undisclosed sum. The reputational fallout and public anger has proven intense for all involved.
When the city of Berkeley took action to update building codes to address the structural vulnerabilities of EEEs, the changes reverberated statewide. The State of California’s comprehensive review of code and inspection protocols took immediate effect in 2017, a process that has reverberated globally with inclusion in the 2018 International Building Code.
Loss of life and serious legal tensions reflect a worst-case scenario, but also one that is regrettably common. Balcony collapses have injured more than 6,500 people and killed 29 since 2003, and allegations like those directed against Segue and the other contractors call attention to potentially troubling behaviors. Given that the project was completed in 2005, managers had 10 years to find the corrosion damage before the eventual collapse. Such an oversight raises concerns about properties across the country: How long has it been since you inspected the balconies at your properties? How likely is it that a threat to structural integrity has taken root, and what are you doing to control that risk?
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Such an oversight raises concerns about properties across the country: How long has it been since you inspected the balconies at your properties? How likely is it that a threat to structural integrity has taken root, and what are you doing to control that risk?
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Here are a few items that can’t be overlooked:
Connections: Most deck collapses occur because of inadequate connections, and primarily decks that are connected to walls by nails. Don’t listen to any firm or contractor that tells you nails are perfectly safe for balconies, period. Check local building codes to find out what is necessary in your region so that you never put residents at risk.
Corrosion and rot: Metal fasteners and wood components are always at risk in outdoor environments, Moisture causes damage to both, and insufficient coverage can expose critical components to rain or wind that can weaken a balcony over time. Use materials like stainless steel and waterproofed wood in situations where you can’t be sure the materials will get the protection they need.
Railings: Railing are another common weak point because it’s possible to construct them for aesthetics rather than safety. Adhering to local building codes is also very important in this area, as everything from the height of railings to the spaces between balusters, spindles or pickets are often specified. Check everything. And check against updates to building codes 100% of the time.
A digital inspection service is essential for keeping residents safe in the modern world. As fetching as balconies can be, ignorance is costly. Never get caught unawares with a catastrophe on your hands. Start inspecting on a mobile app built for enterprise and avoid reputational damage, financial disaster and loss of life and limb.
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“HappyCo helps us prevent neglected items from deteriorating — allowing us to reduce liability, drive down replacement costs, and raise NOI by 1.2%, or $1.5 million dollars.”
— Jaren Bradley
Senior VP of Ops, AMC
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Uncover hidden balcony decay.
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