In our last newsletter, Xpera Group President/Founder Ted Bumgardner drew attention to the danger of wood-framed cantilevered balconies.
Our experience tells us is that a standard visual 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 Failure 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
In February 2017, Hill introduced SB 721, 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 inspection 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 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 Xpera Balcony Assurance
Fortunately, one of Xpera’s core values is Improvement. 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 Xpera 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 is 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.
To learn more about Xpera Balcony Assurance, or to request a proposal, visit xperagroup.com/eee.
As a construction consultant with Xpera Group, Brian L. Hill connects clients to the firm’s diverse range of experts, technical specialists, tools and other resources to solve complex building performance issues.