Berkeley balcony collapse caused by dry rot, expert says

June 16, 2015
San Jose Mercury News

The deadly collapse of a Berkeley apartment balcony early Tuesday morning resulted from water rotting the wood that held it to the building, not from the deck being overloaded, a structural engineer said Tuesday.

The deck showed a "deficiency in the design" said Tony Childress, owner of Texas-based Childress Engineering Services. He questioned the entire deck connection to the residential apartment building at 2020 Kittredge St.Six people died, and seven others were seriously injured when the balcony broke early Tuesday morning.Such accidents are not uncommon; numerous people were injured in a collapse in San Francisco in January and another in Oakland in September. Others have been reported across the country in the past few years.

Balcony collapses are "100 percent avoidable," said a lawyer who has represented victims.

"Due to the complete inadequacy of ... inspections around the Bay Area, you literally have ticking time bombs," said Niall McCarthy, a Burlingame lawyer who has represented victims in five Bay Area balcony collapses. "‹"Balcony maintenance is a life-and-death issue," he said. "If your plumbing goes out, you have a headache and water in your building. If you don't maintain a balcony, somebody dies."Childress said it was clear that water had reached the wood. "You can see the rotting," he said, after reviewing detailed photos of the damage with others in his failure-analysis firm at the request of the Bay Area News Group.

"This is a situation where a deficiency in the design allowed for moisture to seep in," he said. Childress' conclusion also raises questions about the city's review of the plans and construction.

City officials on Tuesday said it was too early in the collapse investigation to discuss its cause. The 176-unit building's planning documents were in storage and were not immediately available.

Building inspection reports from 2005-06, the years during which it was built, make no reference to balconies.

Neither the company that owns the $65 million building nor the one that manages it would discuss what might have caused the collapse Tuesday.

The 1998 California building standards in effect when the building was designed required the balcony to support 60 pounds per square foot, Childress said.

Under that standard, the roughly 50-square-foot balcony could have held about 3,000 pounds. Thirteen people, averaging 200 pounds each, standing on it at the same time would have added up to 2,600 pounds.

A new state building code effective Jan. 1, 2008, increased the load requirements for such an apartment building to 100 pounds per square foot, said Childress Engineering code consultant Ray Kirby.

Childress said the deck would not have been overloaded had it been filled shoulder-to-shoulder with people. The water intrusion doomed it, he said.

"The water infiltrated from the top down, and the wood snapped from the top down," the structural engineer said.

The building, called Library Gardens, is managed by South Carolina-based Greystar, a property management, real estate development and construction company.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Greystar said, "The safety of our residents is our highest priority, and we will be working with an independent structural engineer and local authorities to determine the cause of the accident."

When the balcony broke, it swung down against the building, hanging there like a hinge as the partygoers slipped off to the street below.

It later broke loose, falling on the next deck below, Childress said. Kirby called it a "progressive collapse."

"I don't like the way the steel frame design looks and how it was connected," Childress said.

To prevent the water infiltration, he said, flashing would need to go back several feet inside the wood structure.

Although the building is relatively new, a leak can lead to dry rot in 30 months or less, he said.

Balcony and deck collapses are not uncommon across the United States, with many attributed to poor maintenance, dry rot or termite damage combined with heavy loading.

"Balconies normally don't collapse on their own," said Robert Clayton, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents five students injured in a balcony collapse in Isla Vista next to the UC Santa Barbara campus in 2013.

"It's usually the result of neglect," he said.

That same year, a balcony collapsed during a July 4 party in Neptune Beach, Florida, triggering lawsuits over its condition.

In February of this year, a jury in Montgomery, Alabama, awarded nearly $25 million to eight people injured in a 2012 balcony collapse during a graduation party.

A San Francisco attorney said he was struck by how new the building is.

"It is shocking that it failed so quickly. You would expect to see something like that with much older buildings," said Todd Walburg, a lawyer with Lieff Cabraser in San Francisco, which has represented victims in collapses... (To read the entire article, please click HERE)