Berkeley, California Balcony Collapse – June 16, 2015
The influx of summer building collapses began with the deadly Berkeley balcony failure, where late in the evening on June 16, six people died and seven more were injured after the fourth floor balcony they were standing on suddenly detached from the wall. During the investigation, investigators discovered the cause of the structure failure was linked to severe dry rot. Dry rot is caused by water damage that is left untreated and can undermine a building’s wooden structure enough to cause a collapse. However, when dealing with a balcony that is exposed to the elements, it is common practice to design any structure to ensure that excess water does not seep through to the wooden supports.
The fact that dry rot was present in this structure failure may indicate a design flaw and certainly indicates a lack of proper maintenance. Although the cause of the water damage is still technically unknown, there were some immediate changes made to regulations, including requiring inspections of all balconies exposed to weather every six months. While the possible improper building of the balcony and lack of inspections to discover the dry rot are both serious issues, an even more insidious problem reared its head in this case. It was soon discovered that the contractor who built the balcony had paid $3.5 million to settle a dry rot related collapse lawsuit only two years ago. Yet this massive black mark on the contractor’s record was never reported to the Contractor’s State License Board. The reason for this oversight is simple; the Board does not require such information to be reported. Architects, engineers, and other professional builders must report any settlements to their licensing boards, but for some reason, contractors are exempt from this rule, even though they are the professionals most often hired to perform work on residential homes or apartments. Builders have been known to rely on this exemption so that they are not kept out of the business even if they have a serious history of failing to build their structures up to code.
After this building failure, the Contractor’s State License Board, claimed that it would try to “close gaps” in the information they obtain. However, at the moment there is still no change to the rules that leave building and homeowners in the dark about past problems with building collapses relating to their contractors. In the day and age where most people won’t buy a used car without learning every detail of its accident history, we continue to give contractors the license to build something as important as the roof you sleep under or the balcony you walk out on without so much as a passing glance at prior allegations of structure collapses or code violations against that contractor.