Proposed ordinances aimed at preventing balcony collapses do not go far enough, experts say

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After reviewing the proposed regulations aimed at preventing another balcony collapse like the one in Berkeley that killed six and injured seven June 16, various experts have criticized the proposals for failing to adequately address gaps in current regulations.

The collapse occurred as a result of severe dry rot in the balcony’s supporting beams, according to experts and a city analysis. Significant dry rot was also found in the balcony directly beneath the one that collapsed. The city’s report, released Tuesday, included several proposed additions and amendments to Berkeley housing and building codes.

According to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko, the combination of these proposed changes — including new ventilation requirements, restrictions on what materials can be used and periodic inspections — will address many of the failures that may have led to the collapse.

But mandating inspections only every five years does not adequately safeguard against dry rot and other decay that can set in after a little more than a year, especially in existing buildings that will not be affected by the other new requirements, experts say.

Structural engineer Gene St. Onge, David Anderson from Anderson Law, and marketing director of a general contracting company Dick Gabrio all said that although these proposals go in the right direction, they fall short of creating the necessary preventative measures against dry rot.

Gabrio, whose Bay Area company specializes in waterproofing services, said dry rot can seriously affect the wood in decks and balconies in a little more than a year.
He said his company, Architectural Restoration and Waterproofing Inc., performs checks on waterproofing every two to three years.

Chakko said the one-year timeline for dry rot to develop may not apply to Berkeley buildings, particularly if the new regulations are approved.

“This is a clear, unequivocal step in the right direction,” Anderson said. “But we need to do more while public opinion and concern is focused on this tragedy.”

According to Darrick Hom, president of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California, changes to existing buildings are extremely rare, and while the codes keep getting more comprehensive, they are very rarely applied to existing buildings.

“Unless there’s a provision that makes requirements retroactive to all buildings in order to make them compliant to these requirements … then it’s all on Scout’s honor,” Anderson said.

Chakko said steps will be taken to ensure safety, such as the first set of inspections that would be required by the regulations within six months of them passing. Additionally, he called for increased vigilance of property owners.

“If anybody is concerned about their property, they should certainly hire an engineer immediately to inspect their property,” Chakko said.

But Anderson said that only with definite enforcement provisions could the city better prevent future disasters from happening. City regulation should be mandatory, and suggestions for property owners to hire their own engineers and run their own inspections should be explicit and definite, which would make future legal action much easier, he said.

One of the major failures of California laws regarding building safety, according to Anderson, is that they do not provide the necessary amount of enforcement power to local governments. The legal system will be the only real recourse for enforcement of the proposed regulations, Anderson said.

“Right now, it’s a calculated gamble that the balcony won’t collapse and kill six people,” he said. “And if you lose, it’ll cost you a lot of money.”

According to Chakko, the call for inspections every five years is based on regulations that already exist in San Francisco.

The proposed regulations will be brought before Berkeley City Council on July 14 and must be approved by the state government to go into effect.

Staff writer Abdullah Mirza contributed to this report.

Contact Trevor Greenan at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @trevor_greenan.