When buildings are constructed, they are typically built to withstand the test of time. At a minimum, we would expect a well-constructed and properly constructed apartment, home, or office to last for at least a generation. Typically, we would not expect major problems and the development of structural defects that lead to a total failure to occur in less than a decade.
Unfortunately, this may be the reason behind the Berkeley balcony collapse that killed six and injured many more. On Wednesday evening and through Thursday, investigators appeared to back away from the implication that the number of people on the deck was excessive and was the sole cause of the collapse. Now, investigators seem more confident that rotted wood is to blame for the failure, though they have yet to rule out that the number of party-goers contributed to the failure.
Investigators Now Believe that the Wood Supporting the Balcony Was Not Properly Sealed & Caulked
On Wednesday evening, Berkeley’s mayor revealed that initial signs discovered by investigators had lead to the conclusion that the wooden beams had not been caulked and sealed properly when they were installed. The alleged improper installation of the deck allowed rain, dew and other moisture to seep into the structure, cause water damage, and weaken the supports load-bearing ability.
Mayor Tom Bates stated on Wednesday afternoon, “More than likely it was caused by rain and caused by water damage that was done to the support beams.” However, later in the day the mayor appeared to backtrack slightly on two fronts. First, the mayor clarified earlier statements about the deck possibly being overloaded by characterizing it as a “bad idea” to fit 13 people on a small balcony. However, he did add that this was not about blaming the victims of the accident. He also clarified that his statement regarding water damage was not the investigation’s official conclusion and that it was speculation on his part. However, the mayor may be privy to information not available to the general public, but he may not feel like he can speak definitively on the issue yet.
However, there were other signs at the scene that suggested water damage was the primary reason for the structural failure. After visiting the accident site, Darrick Hom, president of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California, said that the beams being examined by investigators were crumbling when handled by investigators. Wood that crumbles into dust or into chunks is wood that has suffered serious damage and deterioration. Hom added that it was surprising to see such advanced deterioration in a building that was less than a decade old and that materials that will be weathered by the elements must be weatherproofed at the time of construction.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to catch problems of this type after the building had been constructed because most states do not require annual or any regular inspections of decks, balconies, or terraces after they have been constructed. California does not require any inspection and therefore the latent issue was able to develop in the shadows until the deck’s structural failure brought the issue to the forefront. Perhaps the recent spike in deck, balcony, and terrace collapses will convince legislators to rethink this approach.
The Construction Company Has Faced Other Claims for Dry Rot Problems
While it is essential to note that the litigation about to be discussed addressed different projects, the Associated Press has discovered that the construction company that built the Berkeley apartment building has settled other claims regarding what the AP characterized as, “allegations of dry rot and substandard balconies at condo and apartment projects in Millbrae and San Jose. Among other things, [the company] was accused of improperly waterproofing balconies.” The matter was settled in 2013 with the construction company agreeing to pay millions of dollars.
However, a spokesman for the company was quick to draw distinctions between the projects. The spokesman stated that litigation of the type faced by the company is “common on large projects.” Furthermore, he stated that these past legal matters have no bearing on the tragedy in Berkeley because “They are completely different projects. They are completely different types of balconies.”
It is likely or at least possible that completely different crews were responsible for constructing the different buildings. In any case, there were major differences between the projects. While this revelation discovered by the AP is certainly an interesting fact, this incident should be judged on its own merits. The true revelation will occur when investigators announce the official cause of the accident.