City releases report on balcony inspections, new building code recommendations

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The results of thousands of city balcony inspections were released in a city report Wednesday, along with recommended changes to current city building safety codes.

The report reviews the mandatory balcony inspections conducted in the first six months after the Exterior Elevated Elements Inspection Program, or E3 program, was passed by Berkeley City Council in July. The new building codes were in response to a Berkeley balcony collapse in June that killed six and injured seven others.

According to the report, 72 percent of the 6,090 properties notified in August of the new building safety codes responded, with almost 1,700 properties unaccounted for. Following local municipal codes, the city will investigate properties that have not turned in inspection certifications.

Of the 2,176 properties inspected, 18 percent of properties required corrective work, according to the report. After inspection, owners have 60 days to apply for a permit and must complete the work within 90 days of the permit being issued.

The report includes several recommendations to safety codes made by a task force of city officials, property owners and local engineers and architects. Proposed updates include increasing the minimum height for inspection from 30 inches to 6 feet, and replacing “dry rot” in the ordinance’s language to the more technical term “decay.”

Additionally, the task force recommended that inspections be conducted once every five years, as originally proposed to City Council, instead of the three years eventually approved in July.

The changes — which are also supported by the Berkeley Property Owners’ Association — will reduce the number of required inspections and the program’s operating costs without jeopardizing public safety, the report stated.

Task force member and engineer Jeff Tanner of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California, or SEAONC, noted the challenge of recognizing valid safety concerns without overburdening property owners with inspection costs.

“Being able to address all the disparate disciplines in a single ordinance is really tricky because you don’t want to tweak one aspect and create issues in another,” said SEAONC President Kate Stillwell.

Local architectural experts have expressed concerns, however, about the effectiveness of city building codes in regulating balcony materials and designs.

Gary Miller, CEO of Architectural Restoration and Waterproofing Inc., said he is skeptical of the abilities of cities and inspectors to adequately address the safety needs of such structures.

“It’s not any surprise to someone who works with (waterproofing),” Miller said, referring to the Berkeley balcony collapse. “There’s a lack of knowledge in what materials work and what materials don’t. ...There needs to be more education.”

Mario Perez, an employee at Raj Properties, said he was satisfied with the implementation of city inspections. Balcony safety certifications were submitted to the city online through DocuSign, with the city also creating a directory of inspectors available for the E3 program.

“The sum total of all these measures is that Berkeley now has the safest standards in the entire state for these properties,” said city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

City Council will review the inspection results and task force recommendations during its regular meeting Feb. 23.

Contact Amelia Baum and Lucas Lochner-Bravo at [email protected].