Col­lapse high­lights build­ing over­sight gap

With­out con­sis­tent in­spec­tions, struc­tural haz­ards such as de­cay on the fallen Berke­ley bal­cony go un­no­ticed.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Lisa Girion and Sarah Parvini

MILL­BRAE, Calif. — Two years af­ter col­lege stu­dents be­gan mov­ing into Berke­ley’s Li­brary Gar­dens, a sim­i­lar com­plex built by the same gen­eral con­trac­tor opened across the San Fran­cisco Bay. Both low- rise com­plexes hug busy side­walks, wrap around quiet court­yards and are be­decked with bal­conies.

They also share a dan­ger­ous prob­lem: dry rot, the preda­tory fun­gus that feeds on moist wood, turn­ing struc­tural fram­ing and sup­port beams into dust. At Li­brary Gar­dens, dry rot feasted on the wood joists hold­ing up a fifth- f loor bal­cony un­til the can­tilever­ing gave way, caus­ing six peo­ple to plunge to their deaths.

At the Park Broad­way com­plex here, bal­conies also were be­sieged by dry rot but the haz­ard was dis­cov­ered be­fore any­one got hurt. “We were lucky,” said one res­i­dent of the build­ing, near San Fran­cisco In­ter­na­tional Air­port, 25 miles south of Berke­ley.

Dry rot in wood beams that sup­port el­e­vated walk­ways and bal­conies is a com­mon prob­lem that of­ten goes un­de­tected, ex­perts say. While deaths are rare, fail­ures are not. The ones that in­volve se­ri­ous in­juries get head­lines; if not, they usu­ally es­cape public no­tice.

The col­lapse of a sec­ond­floor bal­cony at a UC Santa Bar­bara fra­ter­nity two years ago left f ive stu­dents with bro­ken bones. The 1996 fail­ure of a fourth- f loor apart--

ment bal­cony in San Fran­cisco left one woman dead and 14 peo­ple in­jured.

Those fail­ures are a symp­tom of a broader prob­lem, ex­perts say: There are huge gaps in the on­go­ing scru­tiny of struc­tural in­tegrity haz­ards.

“The build­ing en­force­ment com­mu­nity is not en­gaged,” said Michael A. Quiroz, a Hunt­ing­ton Beach in­dus­try con­sul­tant who chairs a stan­dard- set­ting com­mis­sion. “There is a tremen­dous need to act now. There is a tick­ing time bomb out there now. I’ve talked to other col­leagues about how many other bal­conies are out there that may re­sult in sim­i­lar fail­ures.”

Ideally, ex­perts say, build­ing own­ers should con­duct dry rot in­spec­tions once a year, hir­ing pro­fes­sion­als to drill into walls and peel back outer lay­ers if mois­ture is de­tected. But ro­bust in­spec­tions and re­pairs can be ex­pen­sive. As a re­sult, ex­perts say, many build­ings go unchecked for years.

Mu­nic­i­pal build­ing en­forcers aren’t pick­ing up the slack, they say. Code en­force­ment units of­ten don’t visit dwellings af­ter they’ve cer­ti­fied them for oc­cu­pancy, un­less they get a com­plaint. And peo­ple don’t com­plain about prob­lems they can’t see.

In Berke­ley, of­fi­cials rec­og­nized this gap in over­sight and a week af­ter the bal­cony dis­as­ter called for a man­date on build­ing own­ers to in­spect bal­cony sup­ports at least once ev­ery f ive years. State of­fi­cials are con­sid­er­ing whether the bal­cony col­lapse de­mands a broader fix.

The timely dis­cov­ery of dry rot at Park Broad­way be­gan when a sprin­kler popped open, f lood­ing much of the 109- unit com­plex. The cleanup re­vealed signs of im­proper wa­ter­proof­ing.

Although the build­ing was only two years old, prop­erty man­ager Frank Alioto was con­cerned be­cause he knew how de­struc­tive wa­ter can be. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered wide­spread dam­age, in­clud­ing mold and dry rot. On some bal­conies the wood fram­ing was in bad shape.

“From the out­side it looked per­fectly fine,” Alioto re­called. “But when we opened it up, we saw so much dam­age that the fram­ing that sup­ported the guard rails was com­pletely rot­ted out.

“If some­one had leaned on it, it could have given way, and they could have fallen,” he said.

Ten bal­conies were red­tagged.

What hap­pened next has a lot to do with another key dif­fer­ence be­tween Li­brary Gar­dens and Park Broad­way. At Li­brary Gar­dens, the res­i­dents are renters. At Park Broad­way, most are own­ers; Alioto works for them. So when he re­ported his find­ings to the con­do­minium own­ers as­so­ci­a­tion, the group de­manded the devel­oper f ix them. When the devel­oper re­fused, the as­so­ci­a­tion sued.

Un­der Cal­i­for­nia’s “right to re­pair” law, builders and de­vel­op­ers can be held li­able for con­struc­tion de­fects for up to 10 years. Builders com­plain that the law has en­cour­aged a new form of “am­bu­lance chas­ing,” with some lawyers us­ing free in­spec­tions to drum up lit­i­ga­tion.

Tom Miller, the lawyer who brought the Park Broad­way case, said the law cre­ates a pow­er­ful in­cen­tive for condo own­ers to f ind prob­lems early, be­fore they be­come dan­ger­ous. “We’ve han­dled hun­dreds of these cases,” he said.

Eight months af­ter the condo own­ers filed suit, Park Broad­way res­i­dent Sy Chin said he was awak­ened by the sound of wa­ter drip­ping into his bed­room from his neigh­bor’s bal­cony above.

“This place is rel­a­tively new,” Chin said. “It shouldn’t have got­ten to that point. Ei­ther they didn’t know what they were do­ing or they didn’t care.”

The Park Broad­way own­ers as­so­ci­a­tion even­tu­ally set­tled their suit, col­lected $ 3.5 mil­lion and hired crews to fix the prob­lems.

“No con­trac­tor or con- struc­tion crew is per­fect,” said Harry Hui, pres­i­dent of the Park Broad­way condo as­so­ci­a­tion. “But I feel very for­tu­nate and happy that we took the ini­tia­tive to re­cover enough funds so we are on our way to re­build­ing.”

In rental build­ings, ten­ants have to rely on land­lords to en­sure the un­der­ly­ing in­tegrity of the build­ing. But, in many cases, re­pairs don’t hap­pen un­til con­di­tions be­come haz­ardous, said Bill Leys, a pri­vate in­spec­tor and for­mer bal­cony con­trac­tor. Leys said he was called out to an apart­ment build­ing in Sun Val­ley a few years ago where un­der­ly­ing dry rot was iden­ti­fied only af­ter a ten­ant’s foot went through the f loor.

“Some­body usu­ally needs to get hurt or some­thing cat­a­strophic has to hap­pen be­fore they will go out and re­pair,” he said.

It’s not clear what type of in­spec­tion pro­gram was used at Li­brary Gar­dens. City records show its in­spec­tors re­sponded to com­plaints on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions; none of the records men­tions bal­cony in­tegrity or dry rot.

Renters can go to court as well, but are typ­i­cally rel­e­gated to small claims. Big­ger, build­ing- wide law­suits are ex­pen­sive and hard to or­ga­nize, said My­ron Moskovitz, an ap­pel­late lawyer.

When ten­ants have at- tempted to or­ga­nize, the courts are not al­ways re­cep­tive, he said. An ap­pel­late court in Los An­ge­les re­cently up­held the dis­missal of an at­tempted class- ac­tion law­suit on be­half of the res­i­dents of a Mid- Wil­shire build­ing, say­ing the land­lord’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to main­tain safe and liv­able con­di­tions was “not amenable to com­mon proof.”

In other words, each ten­ant is on his own.

Jeff Chiu As­so­ci­ated Press

A CREW MEM­BER works on what re­mains of a f if th- f loor bal­cony at the Li­brary Gar­dens apart­ment com­plex in Berke­ley. Dry rot feasted on the bal­cony’s wood joists un­til the can­tilever­ing gave way, killing six.

Sarah Parvini Los An­ge­les Times

THE PARK BROAD­WAY apart­ment com­plex in Mill­brae, Calif., is get­ting ren­o­va­tions af­ter struc­tural in­tegrity haz­ards, sim­i­lar to those found at the Berke­ley com­plex where a bal­cony col­lapsed, were dis­cov­ered.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.