City balconies inspected, repaired 6 months after improved building safety codes take effect

Tim Hyon/Staff

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Six months after Berkeley City Council adopted improved building safety codes in response to a balcony collapse that killed six in June, balconies across the city have been inspected for structural integrity and dry rot.

The Exterior Elevated Elements Inspection Program, or E3 program, stipulates that all city balconies must be evaluated and certified by Jan. 14 after it passed in July. The ordinances affected about 6,000 buildings in Berkeley, according to the city planning and development department.

Since July, the city has sent thousands of letters to all properties believed to have elevated platforms such as balconies or decks, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. Chakko said the city has received thousands of responses from property owners, which city staff are tracking with a database.

“We as a city want to make sure that properties in Berkeley are as safe as can be,” Chakko said. “We now have the strictest standards for exterior structures in the state.”

Mary Oram, a broker and property manager at ERI Property Management, said the company had about 25 buildings inspected in the past six months. Three evaluated properties needed repairs, including rebuilding five balconies, Oram said. ERI has already filed a report with the city detailing the results of their inspections.

The inspections, which cost ERI nothing and were a small cost to property owners, were a “good thing to spend money on,” Oram said.

“I’m very appreciative of the E3 program,” Oram said. “Although it’s unfortunate that it was brought to light in such tragic way.”

In addition to having balconies and decks inspected within six months, property owners must have inspectors certify the property’s safety once every three years in compliance with the new ordinances.

Ray Kirby, a consultant of the failure-analysis firm Childress Engineering Services, said stricter building codes beyond what states require will often come from local jurisdictions. According to Kirby, municipal code stipulations on evaluating balconies can range anywhere from annual reviews to inspections once every five years.

“The fact that (Berkeley is) having an inspection program that’s ongoing can help,” Kirby said, adding that the frequency of inspections depends on “whatever the jurisdiction decides is needed and … what the community will accept.”

A task force of engineers, architects and city officials was also created by City Council in July, providing the council with general structural recommendations, according to Kate Stillwell, president of a local structural engineering association.

“We were very impressed with the diligence and the speed that the council took on this matter,” Stillwell said.

City Council sent a letter to the California Building Standards Commission in July urging the commission to revise California Building Standards Code to require steel reinforcements on all new balcony designs, after experts determined dry rot was the cause of the balcony collapse. State building codes are revised once every three years; new standards will be published this summer.

Many students on campus have had their apartments inspected as a result of the ordinance. UC Berkeley sophomore Joyce Kunishima said she received an email from her property manager shortly before her apartment’s balcony was inspected.

Kunishima was not home when the inspection took place, but said she later noticed holes drilled into the bottom of the balcony above hers. Though slightly intrusive, Kunishima said she’s glad the property managers are being proactive in light of the balcony collapse last year.

“I’m glad they’re taking preventative measures rather than doing nothing,” Kunishima said.

On Feb. 10, the city will publish a comprehensive report that will include the results of the new building safety codes and recommendations from the task force to present to City Council, Chakko said.

Contact Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks and Harini Shyamsundar at [email protected].