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New Legislation Invigorates Discussion Of ‘Healthy And Safe’ Balcony Design And Construction Among Property Owners

New Legislation Invigorates Discussion Of ‘Healthy And Safe’ Balcony Design And Construction Among Property Owners

Balconies are an amenity tenants and residents often desire. Across multifamily properties, these small but valuable outdoor spaces can provide a respite from cramped apartment life. In offices, balconies can encourage a healthier work-life balance by providing employees with opportunities for gatherings, fresh air and sunlight. 

While balconies can be a valuable addition to a real estate asset, failure to properly design and build the structures or adequately maintain them can have serious implications and possibly deadly consequences for property owners and occupants. That is what partygoers at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, California, experienced in June 2015

Three men and three women were killed when the balcony they were standing on collapsed. Seven others were injured and the parties involved in the construction and management of the building faced a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. 

“The structural issues behind the collapse, which engineers identified as improperly installed and inadequate waterproofing materials and details, and subsequent dry rot, were preventable," Marx|Okubo Associates Vice President, Northern California Regional Manager and architect Sandy Blair said.

Marx|Okubo was retained as an expert to represent some of the families in the Library Gardens lawsuit.

Lawmakers are also becoming more stringent about balcony design and inspection requirements in civil codes. Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bills 721 and 1465. SB 721 will require the inspection of decks and balconies in multifamily dwellings and mandate repairs as necessary. SB 1465 calls for the reporting of certain settlements involving construction defects in multifamily construction by involved parties.

Architecture, engineering and construction consulting firm Marx|Okubo often discovers multifamily residential and commercial buildings with balconies that have moisture intrusion issues requiring repair. In some cases, the deteriorated areas are serious enough that the firm may warn an owner to limit or avoid access to the balcony and/or recommend temporary emergency shoring measures until the problems are corrected.

Property owners can prevent these problems through proper design, including using higher-quality materials and quality control procedures to ensure proper installation during construction, in addition to establishing a regular maintenance plan. 

Despite rising construction costs, overlooking proper balcony design can cost owners more money throughout the life of the building. By designing balconies that function properly and by setting aside time and money to conduct regular inspections and maintenance, owners can prevent these costly problems and potential safety hazards.

Design

One of the most critical aspects of a well-designed balcony is a structure that repels moisture and incorporates adequate drainage, as trapped water can lead to dry rot and structural failure. 

“Water intrusion is one of the primary reasons for balcony deterioration,” Marx|Okubo Vice President, Southern California Regional Manager and Civil Engineer Chris Geier said. 

New Legislation Invigorates Discussion Of ‘Healthy And Safe’ Balcony Design And Construction Among Property Owners

Balconies should move water away from buildings in a controlled manner. If a balcony wasn’t originally designed with adequate slope and redundant drainage, it can be challenging to route rainwater to a storm drain, Blair said. 

The primary way to move water away from a building is to provide adequate slope on horizontal surfaces. Flat surfaces give water time to find weak points in the waterproofing and penetrate the building envelope.

Another method is to ensure drains are adequately sized and in multiple locations. The second set of drains allows the building maintenance to make inspections and fix problems when the primary drains clog without worrying about having no other method of drainage. 

Owners should also select a waterproofing assembly that will wick away moisture and prevent water penetration. The thickness and materials of the waterproofing assembly depend on location. Areas around high foot-traffic paths, for example, should have increased thickness for durability.

Construction

It is important to relay this design information in a clear and concise manner to a reliable construction company. Marx|Okubo recommends leaving room in the schedule and budget for preparation of balcony waterproofing and construction mockups.

This allows the design and construction team to work out sequencing and details, and test and adjust the design if required to ensure watertight construction. Where applicable, contractors should also complete flood tests of the balconies before occupants move into the building.  

“While owners, architects and developers often inspect office and residential interiors carefully before approving the construction, many overlook detailed inspections of the balconies,” Geier said.

This means that potential slope, drain condition, railing anchorage and gap sizing issues could go unchecked. When a project is nearing completion, having a recorded punch list of unacceptable conditions that are then reported to the construction team can help minimize the risk of a critical element slipping through the cracks. 

Maintenance

Balconies need to be inspected and maintained throughout the life cycle of the building. Property owners must set aside a part of their operations budget for upkeep of balconies. Annual inspections allow building engineers to spot small problems before they become serious issues. SB 721 now requires 15% of balconies and decks to be inspected every six years, and the city of Berkeley has amended its housing codes to require inspection every three years. Other cities in California have implemented similar measures.

“It can be challenging sometimes,” Blair said. “We have to educate owners of these best practices. Some owners like to do ‘what they’ve always done,’ which might be a mistake. The investment up front is always less expensive than the cost of repair, tenant disruption and possible litigation.” 

Marx|Okubo also recommends inspecting balconies after a higher-than-average rainy season, in addition to the required three- to six-year intervals. Deck coating renewals should also occur once a crack or excessive wear in the concrete or deck coating is observed, and cracks should be sealed immediately.

“Above all, landlords need to listen to their occupants," Blair said. “Complaints regarding stains, leaks, moisture intrusion at or under balconies should be thoroughly checked out in a timely manner and issues corrected to maintain a watertight structure.”

While the responsibility of balcony upkeep can seem overwhelming to an owner or property manager, Geier doesn’t see the popularity of having balconies in commercial properties waning anytime soon. Partnering with experts in balcony design and construction repair and maintenance can simplify the process. 

“Having balconies is an amenity that is highly desired,” Geier said. “In many cities, not having balconies might put a property at a disadvantage in the marketplace.” 

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Marx/Okubo. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.