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California Balcony Regulations

The Hidden Dangers of Wood-Framed Cantilevered Balconies – Part 2

May 3, 2017

In the first part of this series, Ted Bumgardner drew attention to the danger of wood-framed cantilevered balconies

Our experience tells us is that a standard visual balcony inspection of a stucco-clad, wood-framed cantilevered balcony is insufficient for properly evaluating the safety and integrity of that assembly. In short, there is no way to know if the structure is safe and sound—until it’s too late.

Taking Action: New Legislation, Standards and Codes

The Berkeley Balcony Collapse in June of 2015 has prompted legislative action and building code changes. The implications are far-reaching, not only for new construction, but for the untold number of existing buildings that have cantilevered balconies supported by concealed wood framing. Since the failure in Berkeley in 2015, an increasing number of jurisdictions and elected officials have worked quickly to try to offer the public more confidence in what is termed “elevated exterior elements,” or EEE.

In collaboration with the City of Berkeley, the Structural Engineers Association of California, and the American Wood Council, the California Building Standards Commission passed an emergency regulation in January 2017 that applies to exterior balconies and elevated walking surfaces. Essentially, it requires that construction documents include manufacturer requirements for the specific deck system to be used, and adds an additional inspection requirement to decks before they are completely enclosed. Also, the standards require ventilation beneath the balcony, as well as new maintenance requirements for such elements.

What About Existing Buildings?

The Cities of Berkeley and San Francisco have enacted new building codes, which are already in effect, requiring owners of all buildings with elevated exterior elements, such as balconies, to be inspected on a regular basis. In both cases, the respective cities have compiled databases listing every property and their current level of compliance with the balcony inspection program.

At the state level, California State Senator Jerry Hill introduced legislation known as SB 465, which was passed in September 2016, requiring greater public disclosure by the state’s licensing board of criminal actions by contractors, as well as directing the state’s Building Standards Commission to develop recommendations for further legislation and/or modification of the state’s building code as it relates
to balconies.

In February 2017, Hill introduced SB 721 (which is now a law), which would require regular and periodic inspection of decks, balconies, and other elevated walkways at ALL multifamily residential buildings with at least 3 units.

The initial balcony inspection (or deck inspection or other, depending on the structure) must be completed and filed with the county recorder’s office by January 1, 2021. The legislation continues, stating that if any balconies inspected are found to be deficient, the property owner must apply for a permit to make necessary repairs within 60 days, with all repairs to be completed within 90 days.

What Does This Mean for All of Us?

If you read the specific criteria for inspecting elevated exterior elements as outlined in the recent legislation, you might find yourself scratching your head, much like we did, wondering how exactly one would inspect framing members that are buried within stucco assemblies. Unless you have X-ray vision, a purely visual balcony inspection won’t reveal sufficient information about the structural integrity of the concealed framing. That was made evident in the Berkeley balcony failure that kicked off this whole discussion in the first place.

Therefore, it would seem then that the only possible option for complying with the balcony inspection requirements would be to perform destructive testing. In most instances, this would entail removing a strip of stucco parallel to the building’s wall on the entire underside of the balcony, with enough room for a person to stick their head up in the cavity to examine the connection to the building. After patching the stucco, you’re easily looking at costs upwards of $2,500 per balcony. That doesn’t include repairs to balconies that have evidence of water intrusion. For property owners, the time and expense (not to mention inconvenience) associated with staying in compliance with these new regulations on an ongoing basis can be quite significant, particularly for larger multifamily projects with numerous EEEs.

Introducing Balcony Assurance

We knew there had to be a better, less costly, and less invasive manner of evaluating the safety of balconies and exterior walkways. So, our team of experts got to work on a solution.

We call it Balcony Assurance, which utilizes our cutting-edge, non-destructive testing (NDT) technology, combined with our proprietary InSpec® building inspection methodology, to provide a more effective, less invasive, and far more cost-effective approach to ensuring the structural integrity and safety of balconies and various types of EEEs.

In their initial site visit and after fully inspecting exposed elements, our experts use a minimally invasive process to make strategically placed penetrations less than 1/2-inch in diameter in the underside of each balcony. These special “view ports” provide access for our compact and highly sensitive digital inspection cameras, which remotely transmit image data back to the inspector in order to quickly evaluate key structural components for evidence of failure. The images are then recorded and included within the inspection report. Once the inspector is done with a balcony, small plastic covers are inserted into the view port, closing and sealing the penetration until the next inspection.

Besides being barely perceptible due to their small size and inconspicuous location on the underside of the balcony, the view port covers perform an important function—they make it very quick and easy to perform the required follow-up inspections in later years, without needing to make new holes or penetrations.

The per-unit cost of our new proprietary Balcony Assurance program depends on a number of variables but starts at roughly $200 per balcony, a small fraction of the cost associated with traditional destructive testing. Most importantly, owners can feel confident that the service is performed by a team of professional inspectors whose training and experience are unparalleled in the business.

Stucco-wrapped wood-framed balconies and walkways represent a real risk to the life-safety of building occupants if not properly constructed, regularly inspected, and properly maintained. We are proud to provide a new—and far better—approach for mitigating that risk and doing our part to ensure we don’t see another balcony tragedy.

Balcony Regulation Changes At-A-Glance

Here’s what you need to know about the new code changes that took effect in California on January 27, 2017:

Where balcony or other elevated walking surfaces are exposed to water from direct or blowing rain, snow, or irrigation, and the structural framing is protected by an impervious moisture barrier:

  • The construction documents shall include details for all elements of the impervious moisture barrier system. This requires the architect to provide complete details of the system including the membrane, flashings, scuppers, etc. Many architects on large or complex projects will likely engage a building envelope consultant for this.
  • The construction documents shall include manufacturer’s installation instructions.
    This will have the effect of making the product specifications “proprietary,” essentially limiting the bidders to use one specific product or requiring a plan change when an installer decides to use an alternate product.
  • All elements of the impervious moisture barrier system shall not be concealed until inspected and approved.
    This will require an additional building department inspection not currently required.
  • The impervious moisture barrier system protecting the structure supporting floors shall provide positive drainage of water that infiltrates the moisture-permeable floor topping.
    Most product manufacturers require this now, but not all.
  • Enclosed framing shall be provided with openings that provide a net free cross ventilation area not less than 1/150 of the area of each separate space.
    This will require vents in the deck soffit.
  • Balconies and decks shall be designed to withstand 1.5 times the live load for the area served. Not required to exceed 100 psf, as opposed to the previous code requirement to withstand the same live load as the area served.
    This is a substantial structural change requiring joists to be deeper, or spaced more closely together.

To learn more about VERTEX’s Balcony Assurance service or to speak with a Construction Expert, call 888.298.5162 or submit an inquiry.

This article was originally published by Xpera Group which is now part of The Vertex Companies, LLC.

Balcony Assurance Expert

Brian Hill

Brian Hill

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