Balcony collapse spurs stricter building codes

The Berkeley City Council will consider stricter standards for balcony construction and inspection Tuesday evening in a legislative effort to prevent accidents like the collapse of an apartment balcony last month that killed six people and injured seven others.

The proposed legislation was drafted by city staff who concluded the collapse was likely caused by dry rot in the wooden joists of the cantilevered balcony at the Liberty Gardens apartment complex. Moisture somehow infiltrated the enclosed and ostensibly waterproofed balcony, causing the dry rot.

The sudden collapse dumped 13 people from the fourth-floor balcony at 2020 Kittredge St. during a birthday party early on the morning of June 16, killing the six 21-year-old students, including five Irish nationals.

City inspectors found dry rot in the balcony below it as well and ordered it removed.

The recommended amendments to the building and housing codes would require balconies to be constructed with either water-resistant wood or corrosion-resistant steel, for enclosed outdoor construction to be built with ventilation and for all balconies to be re-inspected every five years.

City Councilman Jesse Arreguin Tuesday called the balcony collapse “one of the worst tragedies in Berkeley history” and said that after consulting with structural engineers he thinks the staff’s proposal should go further:

“We have learned that there are clear deficiencies in our existing building code.”

He said he will introduce further amendments to the staff proposals at this evening’s City Council meeting requiring even stricter construction and inspection standards and for tenants of apartments with at-risk balconies to be notified.

The most important of Arreguin’s amendments, he said, is a new requirement for balcony waterproofing to be inspected after construction, a requirement he said he is unaware of any other California municipality adopting.

Arreguin is also proposing that all newly constructed balconies be built with corrosion-resistant steel, going a step further than the staff proposal which would allow either naturally water-resistant or pressure-treated wood and for balconies to be inspected every three years instead of every five years.

Dry rot can spread quickly, he said, and five years might not be enough time to catch it.

Owners of buildings that were constructed before the new legislation takes effect would not be required to rebuild their balconies, but under Arreguin’s amendments they would need to notify tenants that the balconies were constructed without using water-resistant materials and advising them of weight limits.

While the new amended codes would improve the safety of balconies in the city of Berkeley, Arreguin said he is urging the state to take on similar measures in its building codes. The council will also vote this evening on whether to send a letter to the state reporting the city’s findings.

A draft of the letter distributed by Arreguin Tuesday says that the balcony was constructed according to state codes:

“As a result, balconies matching this failed design can be legally constructed to this day. … These indications show that the current building standards, in this specific regard, are not providing an effective safeguard to public health, safety and general welfare.”

State lawmakers have taken notice of the debate surrounding the Berkeley balcony collapse, and on Tuesday a state Assembly committee took up legislation that would require contractors to disclose civil settlements and binding arbitration to the California State License Board.

The committee voted down the proposal amid questions about whether such settlements — which do not find fault and could merely be a demonstration of the cost of defending a claim — are a good indication of poor workmanship.

Some state legislators at the committee suggested that focusing on building materials and code improvements, as the city-level legislation does, would be a better way to prevent future catastrophes.