The recent tragic news of six college students in Berkeley, California who were the victims of a rotten balcony collapse has caused many code inspectors and construction companies to consider the safety standards of balconies. And, recently, in North Carolina, a family celebrating the summer holidays experienced the terror of a large second story deck collapse, which resulted in multiple serious injuries. Think back to the many times that you have stepped out on a balcony to enjoy an elevated view. You likely did not consider the possible hazards and probably assumed that you were safe. Many properties are built with balconies; homes, hotels, restaurants, event arenas, theaters, and so many more.
At the time of construction, these balconies are built according to construction safety standards and are inspected. Unfortunately, there are not always standards for follow up inspections over years of use. If not maintained properly, balcony collapse may result, causing severe injury and even death, as in the case of the college students.
Tragically, many innocent people are unnecessarily injured in balcony collapse accidents every year in the U.S. due to property owner negligence and a failure to maintain balcony structures. Injuries range in nature and severity, but often include broken bones, head or brain injuries, lacerations, and even fatality.
Documented Causes of Balcony Collapse
There could be any number of causes behind the collapse of a balcony, but many of them relate to an owner’s refusal to correct a known problem with the structure. The Consumer Product Safety Commission analyzed wooden balcony and deck injuries between 2003 and 2007 and reported that 224,000 people were injured as the result of a faulty balcony nationwide. Some common causes of balcony collapse directly relate to:
The primary cause of the recent deaths in Berkeley was found to be severely rotted wooden support beams. According to the inspection reports, the beams had experienced prolonged exposure to moisture. The balcony floor joists that provide the primary support for the weight of the balcony were so severely rotted that they crumbled and gave way, resulting in the deadly fall. Homeowners must conduct routine inspections for rotten supports in order to ensure that these accidents do not occur.
When balconies are constructed with more surface area than they can reasonably support, the resulting overcrowding of the balcony may deliver more weight than the structure can support. Construction plans must consider the usable standing area for the balcony when planning for adequate support structures.
3. Complying with Construction Codes
When balconies are built as “add ons” and not as part of the original building structure, adequate tie in supports must be built to guarantee safety. Never step out onto a balcony that appears as if it was built on without following proper construction codes or receiving requisite inspections.
4. Lack of Regular Inspections
Safety inspections focusing on joints, screws and bolts that secure supports should be part of a regular inspection report conducted by both homeowners and commercial maintenance managers. Rusty joint and screws can result in the failure of the structure, over time.
5. Faulty Construction Materials
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled a brand of composite decks in 2009, citing that they prematurely deteriorate and break unexpectedly . Whether a balcony or raised deck is part of a large construction project or a home improvement project, it is important to research the products and materials to ensure that they have not been recalled.
Collapse Issues Facing Houses & Apartments
Wet weather can cause dry rot and invite termite damage to the house and balcony too. This factor along with shoddy construction remain serious factors regarding the collapse of a balcony. Sometimes a house is old and the termite damage has made the wood brittle and soft. Adding a new balcony to update an old house might sound good in theory but a building inspector should make sure that the house can withstand the added weight. Obviously, ridding the house of termites does not strengthen previously chewed on wood. Before a balcony can be added to the structure, there needs to be major work done to the walls of the home. A homeowner with an older home will have to make many considerations regarding any and all construction before proceeding with added work and a balcony. Older homes usually have asbestos which will need to be removed by professionals. An older non-refurbished home will also have lead based paint, which is another factor that needs to be dealt with by professionals. While these things may not directly affect the balcony, the paint and the insulation in the walls holding up the balcony, are part of the entire process of remodeling.
Sometimes apartment buildings made of concrete still have balconies that collapse because of erosion. Simple wear and tear can often be a culprit. Old apartment buildings used weaker materials and thinner cement mixtures resulting in various problems such as chipping, flaking and finally collapse. While new apartments are building balconies with stronger materials, the older ones will need to re-engineer every unit to bring things up to code. There is also an occupancy limit on most balconies and accidents can happen if the weight on the balcony is over the legal limit.
It is also important to note the differences between dry rot and wet rot. Wet rot usually occurs lower to the ground because there is constant water making the lumber dark, rubbery and moldy. However, a large pipe leaking above another unit could hide the danger that’s lurking between the walls. Typically, dry rot occurs when wood becomes wet and has been exposed to some water. In this case, the wood is not soaked but damp. One helpful, telltale sign pointing to dry rot is the appearance of condensation in the windows.
Keep Your Balcony Safe
We have considered many factors regarding the collapse of balconies and basically, the most common reasons that balconies collapse involve either one or more of the reasons mentioned above. Of importance, a balcony needs to be strong–perhaps the sturdiest and safest area of any home or business area. If faced with a balcony collapse in New York, seek both medical and legal help.