City Council votes to adopt new building safety codes after June balcony collapse

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Daniel Chang/Staff

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Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt amendments to local and state housing codes that will require inspections of weather-exposed structures every three years, among other stipulations.

The council also voted to send a revised letter to the California Building Standards Commission urging it to require steel reinforcement in new balconies and approved a referral to the city manager to develop an ordinance to display weight capacity on balconies and to notify tenants of balcony materials, all after a balcony collapse in June killed six.

Under the new ordinances, effective immediately, builders will have to hire an inspector every three years to provide certification of the building’s safety to the city. All balconies must be inspected within the next six months, and the program will affect about 6,000 buildings, according to the city planning and development department.

If old balconies must be replaced upon inspection, the owner will have to build a new one in compliance with new code. But if the balcony can be fixed without new construction, owners can remodel in accordance with old standards. The inspections were originally proposed to be every five years but were changed to every three years at the meeting.

Water intrusion was responsible for the dry rot that caused the Library Gardens balcony collapse June 16. The city will require waterproofing inspection before the structures are sealed, said structural engineer Gene St. Onge at a press conference, and structures will also be ventilated to prevent moisture buildup.

Several structural engineers spoke during the public hearing — volunteering a task force of engineers and architects to recommend improvements to the amendments — and asked the council to postpone changes until the task force made new recommendations. This request was supported by representatives from the American Wood Council and the Alameda County Building Trades Council.

“A deliberative process that allows all stakeholders to (participate) will result in recommendations that are comprehensive yet practical,” said Dennis Richardson, a representative of the American Wood Council.

Kate Stillwell, president of a local structural engineering association, said the use of preservative treated wood could create corrosion hazards, and ventilation or access panels would create fire hazards.

Council members were receptive to creating a task force but voted to move forward with the amendments. According to Stillwell, the city’s building program manager Jenny McNulty contacted her and other representatives to ask their availability.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who spearheaded the item, said that if a task force were created, it should be balanced among city building staff, engineers, architects and industry representatives.

“It’s not appropriate to have a task force full of industry lobbyists who all have their own agenda … given that some advocating for it were industry stakeholders,” Arreguin said.

Arreguin hopes the local legislation will build momentum to change statewide standards and said he was “pleased” to see that City Council had taken steps to improve public safety.

Contact Madeleine Pauker at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @powkur.