On June 16, six people were killed near San Francisco when an apartment
balcony they were gathered on collapsed. The collapse caused them to fall
four stories to a sidewalk below. Four were killed instantly, and two
more died at the hospital from their injuries. Seven more people were injured.
The tragedy was national news in the United States and Ireland. Five of
the six killed were visiting from Ireland as part of a work-study abroad
program. One was an American from California.
Surprisingly, the apartment building involved was not old or apparently
unsafe. It was finished in 2007 and was part of a pricey apartment complex
near the Berkeley University campus.
While no final conclusions can be drawn yet, early suspicions about the
balcony collapse point to dry rot. The balcony was held in place by wooden
beams which apparently cracked where the balcony joined the building.
This allowed the balcony to break free and fall, dumping the occupants
to the ground below.
A poorly sealed building can allow water intrusion, which can quickly eat
away at wood joists and make them lose their strength. While many people
understand that structures decay over a period of decades, dry rot can
actually destroy structural integrity within a few years of construction.
Further investigation will reveal whether this occurred in the relatively
new building in Berkeley.
Rot is a particular concern here in Florida. We have a hot, humid climate
with frequent rainfall, and it is particularly unforgiving to structures
supported by wood. Even concrete block construction is vulnerable in some
ways, because studs and roof trusses are usually wooden even when a building’s
exterior walls are not. Many Florida homes also have wooden balconies
or decks which allow occupants to eat or relax outdoors.
The collapse of a balcony on a relatively new building points out a little-known
safety issue. While apartments and other buildings must comply with codes
when they are built, there is no specific requirement that they be inspected
to ensure safety afterward.
In other words, owners of rental properties in Florida have no specific
duty to look over their buildings for developing decay or defects. Although
they are generally required by law to provide safe buildings to their
tenants, there is no requirement that they inspect them on a particular
schedule. Therefore, many apartments or rented commercial buildings may
not be inspected for years after they are originally built. Some may never
be inspected at all after original construction is complete.
The one good thing that may come from this tragedy is greater awareness
about maintaining safe structures. Let’s hope landlords everywhere
heed the wake-up call and make sure the places they lease are safe for
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