In 2014, one person died and two were injured when a balcony collapsed during a birthday party at a condominium in Philadelphia.
A 2015 accident in which a railing became dislodged on a balcony in Ottowa, Canada, resulted in critical injuries when a woman fell four stories and landed on concrete below.
That same year, six Irish students died when a balcony collapsed at a Berkeley, California, apartment building.
And in June 2017, a balcony on a condominium in Dublin, Ohio, collapsed, fell onto a car and injured two people. In the wake of that incident, more than 150 other balconies were deemed to be unsafe, pending a structural evaluation.
Clearly, a list of accidents that has grown longer and longer over many years has not alerted owners to potential dangers associated with their buildings’ balconies, decks and porches. Every year — particularly when warm weather prompts gatherings to move outdoors — newspapers are rife with stories about collapse-related injuries.
Following two deck collapses within about a month’s time, the town of Emerald Isle, North Carolina, instituted a voluntary deck safety program in an effort to ward off future incidents. Under the program, county inspectors offer any assistance requested by condo owners, and the town will give suggestions on likely problems, such as broken boards, rusted nails, nails that may be popped up, loose boards or loose hand rails.
Just a few months after the program’s 2015 launch, more than 100 people attended a deck safety class to talk about what to look for when conducting a deck inspection.
Check It Out
So how can you keep your buildings safe for residents and visitors — and out of newspaper headlines?
The town of Emerald Isle hit the nail on the head with its focus on inspections. After the issue was brought to light, local builders and inspectors said they were shocked at the number of decks they found that needed to be repaired. And more than 150 decks in the coastal community underwent repairs in the months that followed.
Other cities like Berkeley, where those six students died, have enacted ordinances that require property owners to hire licensed experts to inspect and certify the structural integrity of decks, balconies, staircases, landings and other weather-exposed areas on a specified schedule.
How do you know if you should be worried about your decks? The North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA) suggests looking for these warning signs:
- Ledger: Is the ledger attached over siding, stucco, brick or veneer? Has proper hardware been used to attach the ledger?
- Hardware: Is there red rust from corroded metal hardware, such as fasteners, connectors or metal posts?
- Framing: Is any of the wood untreated, decayed or rotted, or are there loose or missing connectors such as joist hangers, guard post-to-joist connections or tension-ties?
- Footers: Are the footers at the proper depth and width using footer to post fasteners?
In connection with its own deck safety program, NADRA has produced a “Check Your Deck” consumer checklist that can be downloaded in PDF form at nadra.org.
Hire a Pro
While suggesting that consumers regularly check their decks for obvious problems, NADRA stresses the importance of getting professional help to ensure safety. “The evaluation/ inspection of residential decks require special knowledge, expertise and experience because of the possibility of the gradual deterioration of structural materials from water, climate factors, and corrosion of structural fasteners and connectors,” the association’s website notes. “In addition to structural materials, numerous deck elements such as guardrails, handrails, lighting, stairs, and landings may not meet current safety standards as the building codes are updated on a recurring basis, typically three years. A professional inspector should thoroughly examine your deck for occupant safety to ensure the deck is safe for future use.”
Whether your decks and balconies are attached to urban mid-rises, suburban townhomes or lakeside retreats, regular inspections are essential.
While construction defects may play a role in some cases, decks that experience failure were most likely originally built to code. Unfortunately, time and the forces of nature tend to affect the vulnerable point where the deck is attached to the building. Corroded or improper fasteners, flashing problems, split or decaying wood — the list of potential trouble spots grows with time.
When beautiful weather lures residents onto those popular outdoor spaces, you won’t have to worry about dealing with disaster if regular inspection of all decks, porches and balconies is a part of your building’s routine.