Tougher rules are urged for bal­conies

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Lisa Girion, Lee Rom­ney and Rong- Gong Lin I I

BERKE­LEY — City of­fi­cials pro­posed new in­spec­tion and con­struc­tion rules Tues­day aimed at pre­vent­ing another bal­cony col­lapse like the one that left six dead and seven in­jured last week.

The fail­ure of the can­tilevered, fifth-floor apart­ment bal­cony dur­ing a 21st birth­day cel­e­bra­tion also drew scru­tiny by of­fi­cials be­yond Berke­ley. A spokes­woman said the Alameda County dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice “was reach­ing out to the city of Berke­ley and our of­fice will be­gin look­ing at this mat­ter.”

And state of­fi­cials said they would look into whether changes need to be made in Cal­i­for­nia’s build­ing code.

“We need to look at all con­tribut­ing fac­tors, in­clud­ing pos­si­ble dry rot and the build­ing code to de­ter­mine the best pos­si­ble so­lu­tion,” said Evan Ger­berd­ing, a spokes­woman for the state Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment.

In a re­port re­leased a week af­ter the in­ci­dent, of­fi­cials with Berke­ley’s Build­ing and Safety

Di­vi­sion con­firmed sus­pi­cions that dry rot had de­te­ri­o­rated the wood beams sup­port­ing the bal­cony. They also said they found no con­struc­tion code vi­o­la­tions. Their re­view in­volved many of the same doc­u­ments the di­vi­sion re­lied on to al­low res­i­dents to move into the 176- unit com­plex in 2007.

In­stead, they found prob­lems with the code it­self and pro­posed changes. Their f in­d­ings raised ques­tions about whether ex­ist­ing build­ing codes are ad­e­quate to en­sure safety on sim­i­lar bal­conies across the state.

In Los An­ge­les, a spokesman for the Depart­ment of Build­ing and Safety said it is dif­fi­cult for lo­cal gov­ern­ments to make that kind of guar­an­tee. The city, like many oth­ers across the state, has no way to as­sess the on­go­ing in­tegrity of bal­conies once con­struc­tion is com­plete and peo­ple move in.

“There is no way to en­sure that bal­conies are to­tally ‘ safe,’” spokesman David Lara wrote in an email. “There are many cir­cum­stances that could trig­ger ac­ci­dents such as the one in Berke­ley.”

Mu­nic­i­pal build­ing codes of­ten lag be­hind in­dus­try stan­dards and fol­low­ing them doesn’t ab­solve a builder of li­a­bil­ity, said Tom Miller, a lawyer who repre- sents home­own­ers in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the Bay Area.

“Built ‘ to code’ doesn’t mean there weren’t mis­takes,” Miller said. “When­ever there is dry rot, that means some­body didn’t do some­thing right.”

For ex­am­ple, the city’s rules, which are based on the state code, did not re­quire in­spec­tors to check the bal­cony’s wa­ter­proof­ing dur­ing con­struc­tion.

The rules pro­posed Tues­day would not im­pose such a re­quire­ment. In­stead, they would force own­ers to in­spect all bal­conies, stair­ways and el­e­vated decks in apart­ments and other multi- unit hous­ing com­plexes at least once ev­ery five years.

Of­fi­cials also want vents in­stalled un­der­neath bal­conies, decks and stairs.

Fi­nally, author­i­ties want to ban the use of un­treated en­gi­neered wood — wood that is pressed to­gether in fac­to­ries and that some ex­perts say is more at risk for dry rot.

In­stead, city of­fi­cials want builders to use costlier wood that is nat­u­rally re­sis­tant to dry rot, such as red­wood, ma­hogany and Brazil­ian wal­nut; wood that is treated with preser­va­tives that fend off rot and in­sects; or cor­ro­sion- re­sis­tant steel.

Some ex­perts crit­i­cized the re­view for fail­ing to an- swer the cen­tral ques­tion of why the wa­ter­proof­ing failed.

“We won’t de­ter­mine how mois­ture got in,” Berke­ley plan­ning di­rec­tor Eric Angstadt told re­porters at a news con­fer­ence.

“Our anal­y­sis is com­plete, and we are not go­ing to be con­duct­ing any fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

The new rules “would pre­vent the dry rot from ad­vanc­ing so quickly,” he said, and “are de­signed to deal with wa­ter in­tru­sion no mat­ter how it hap­pens.”

Bill Leys, a San Luis Obispo wa­ter­proof­ing con­sul­tant, said the city should get to the bot­tom of the prob­lem.

“There’s a rea­son that wa­ter got in, and the rea­son needs to be dis­cov­ered, so it can be pre­vented in the fu­ture,” Leys said.

Leys also said it was un­nec­es­sary to ban con­ven­tional wood or cer­tain types of en­gi­neered wood.

“For 100 years or more, we’ve been build­ing with tra­di­tional, reg­u­lar wood and as long as it’s pro­tected from wa­ter in­tru­sion, it does just fine,” Leys said. “But if it gets wa­ter trapped in it, it’s doomed to fail.”

My­ron Moskovitz, a lawyer who rep­re­sented Berke­ley in a rent con­trol case be­fore the state Supreme Court, said the city depart­ment that signed off on the orig­i­nal con­struc­tion had no busi­ness in­ves­ti­gat­ing the col­lapse.

“They have a conf lict of in­ter­est,” Moskovitz said. “Some­one else should do it. I think the county grand jury ought to be look­ing at this.”

The dis­trict at­tor­ney’s off ice, which has the power to or­ga­nize a grand jury in­ves­ti­ga­tion, did not de­tail the na­ture of its in­quiry.

It is not the f irst time build­ing haz­ards have drawn such scru­tiny.

In 1996, the col­lapse of a fourth- f loor bal­cony dur­ing a cock­tail party in San Fran­cisco left one woman dead and 14 other peo­ple in­jured.

Pros­e­cu­tors said the land­lord’s ne­glect of the build­ing was so egre­gious that they charged him with man­slaugh­ter.

The jury was un­able to reach a ver­dict on that charge but con­victed him of mis­de­meanors.

City of­fi­cials said they could in­tro­duce the new rules at a Berke­ley City Coun­cil meet­ing as early as July 15.

If they pass, build­ing own­ers will have six months to in­spect bal­conies. lisa. girion @ latimes. com le­ora. rom­ney @ latimes. com ron. lin @ latimes. com Girion and Lin re­ported from Los An­ge­les, Rom­ney from Berke­ley. Times staff writ­ers Paige St. John in Sacra­mento and Javier Pan­zar in Los An­ge­les con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

SHEARED- OFF joists where a bal­cony col­lapsed last week show signs of dry rot, but in­spec­tors found no con­struc­tion code vi­o­la­tions.

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