The news on the morning of June 16 was tragic, concerning an issue that could likely have an impact on our industry. The balcony collapse in the Bay Area in California that ultimately claimed six lives was nothing less than horrific. After spending the better part of two decades entrenched in building envelope issues, investigations and watching changes in industry practices, the news was sobering. The building was a multi-family structure built in 2007 and apparently clad in cement stucco. The waterproof membrane used to protect the wood deck joists was hanging like a symbolic drape of sadness.
I am certain the investigation will be exhaustive. However, it was hard not to notice—even from distant pictures—the joists appeared severely rotted and decayed. Initial reports indicated the building code itself is inadequate and to blame. I had to agree with an engineer who rebutted this issue the next day by stating even with 13 football players jumping up and down, the balcony should have merely deflected. The engineer presumed as I do, something went terribly wrong, and it was not the building code.
I think there is little doubt that any party involved with this project would have welcomed an inspection that could have averted this tragedy. We can call it commissioning, inspection or proper oversight—but the truth is with more and more complex codes, building designs, heightened awareness on sustainable construction, energy savings and water intrusion issues, construction needs more oversight.
The tricky part is finding people that have that blend of building science, code knowledge and practical field experience to bring all those moving parts together. The complexity is escalated with claddings that have infinite variations, such as cement stucco. I have met engineers with degrees, a good understanding of building science and yet a limited knowledge on lath and cement stucco. With buildings being constructed more air tight, lumber not as decay resistant as in years past, designs/details are becoming more complicated and workers in the field not getting the training they need, how can things improve?
Commissioning is similar to inspections but more involved and is likely the wave of the future. A good friend tells me he and the International Code Council are developing commissioning criteria for buildings. While energy, structural and sustainable is important, he and I agree that water intrusion is probably the key to the program. Failure to adequately inspect installations is always a prime concern.
I worked as project manager for an architectural firm that specialized in building envelopes and we had an in-house rule that during an onsite inspection, cell phones should be turned off. This has become more important than ever as the industry has strayed away from a simple standardization of repeated procedures and materials and moved more toward multi-layers and increasing complexity and adding additional components. This is why commissioning, similar to ship building, is likely to increase in the future.
The problems or issues I have discussed are not isolated to the west coast. Florida is being hit with similar issues. Fortunately most problems are discovered and repaired prior to life ending catastrophic events.
Events like the Berkeley balcony collapse tend to shake things up. Much like the night club fire in Rhode Island brought attention to the use of foam plastic on interiors, or the MGM in Las Vegas led to new head-of-wall firestopping rules, this too will most likely have repercussions down the road.
Solving the Issues
Changes to the code are probable as politicians must show due concern and some corrective action to warrant staying in office. I hope the resultant action is not to gloss over a growing problem or worse yet, add to creating new ones. As we continue to increase the air tightness of our buildings, we will have to be even more vigilant on flashing and condensation issues to prevent more incidents like what happened in Berkeley.
I am hopeful the investigation and final report is open-minded, fair and accurate. Waterproofing a deck, the transitions, penetrations and a full understanding of the building condensation must all be taken into account and calculated accurately. Review of the installation of all the materials, verifying proper laps of waterproof materials must be covered.
Adding more regulations with multiple layers of complexity tends to lead to even more failure. Whatever the result, it will be of little solace to the families of these young people.