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.
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?
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?
What You Can Do
First things first. When you’re evaluating a potential acquisition, your due diligence (DD) walks must alert you of critical property deficiencies like structurally compromised balconies, decks, stairs and walkways from the get-go. In the midst of competing bids and tight DD timelines, you only have one chance to get it right. You need to execute your DD walks with precision so you can expose risks like substandard materials and uncover big capital expenses hidden in plain sight. In order to make educated decisions, your unit walks must lay bare any concerns and validate the physical conditions. Your walk data should help you budget for renovations and make an educated bid.
Through a well-documented Due Diligence process, you may find you have a basis for renegotiation of the terms of the transaction or grounds for walking away from a deal. But because pen-and-paper inspections are slow to report issues, nonstandardized and often illegible, Multifamily companies are now automating DD to achieve speedier walks and achieve lower bids with mobile inspections and real-time intelligence.
But let’s say you already own or manage a property and are now operations-focused. You can’t travel back in time to the high-stakes acquisition stage, but you can be proactive about inspecting your balconies and other EEEs to find out if you have a ticking time bomb on your hands. The problem is, those multifamily managers still relying on pen-and-paper inspections aren’t giving themselves the instant visibility they need to address time-sensitive property issues like water intrusion, rotting structural wood and deteriorating balconies. Without real-time intelligence into property conditions, you can’t catch vulnerabilities before they result in a catastrophe. And when you fail to identify and conduct needed preventative maintenance because of you’re using an inadequate paper inspection system, you can be found negligent in court — a nightmarish proposition.
Balconies become an unsafe proposition when they aren’t properly inspected and maintained — which is more often the case than anyone would like. Of the 40 million decks in the U.S., 50% are estimated to be out of compliance with building codes. In other words, half of the deck and porch structures in the country might be powder kegs. That’s why it’s critical for property managers to take responsibility for preserving both human life and physical assets by conducting and documenting inspections.
One of the reasons operators aren’t inspecting as they should is because paper inspections are time consuming and of limited value once they’re stowed in filing cabinets. Rather than getting rolled up into useful real-time dashboards, key data points collected on paper often never get put to use to drive compliance. Your inspection documentation — your best legal defense — instead is frequently illegible, crumpled, lost and inaccessible without a site visit.
You can do better.
By converting your inspection workflow to a mobile inspection platform, you can empower yourself and your staff with the real-time information you need to flag and immediately address time-sensitive issues. With a work order integration, you can make critical inspection results instantly actionable by generating work orders directly from inspection items.
Sure, there will be one-off issues you can fix with a work order or two, but how do you know if a problem just an isolated deficiency, or actually the tip of the iceberg? In other words, a trend? What if the issue extends beyond just one balcony on one property? You won’t be able to find out if you aren’t able to cross-reference your inspection data with results from the hundreds or thousands of units in your portfolio. That’s where you can leverage real-time insights to your advantage. Item-level analytics, photo reporting and usage and adoption dashboards give you visibility so you can track property conditions, optimize compliance and achieve higher NOI.
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.
“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
Uncover hidden balcony decay.
Achieve portfolio-wide compliance with HappyCo.