Berkeley City Ordinance on Balconies

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp ICC Certified-Accessibility Inspector and Plan Examiner ICC - Certified Building Plan Examiner

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp ICC Certified-Accessibility Inspector and Plan Examiner
ICC – Certified Building Plan Examiner

The City Council of Berkeley approved an ordinance on July 15th in response to the recent balcony collapse. Part of the ordinance is a vigorous inspection program requiring all balconies in R-1/hotels and transient lodging and R-2/multi-family dwellings be inspected within 6-months of the passage of the ordinance. In addition all of these balconies need to be inspected every 3 years. It was estimated that 6,000 letters were sent to building owners in this category. This program does not include single family residences or R-3.

The City is currently dealing with the implementation: this would include who can do the inspection(s), what needs to be looked at, if any destructive demolition needs to be done, and trigger points for repairs and affects on associated building elements, such as guards and handrails. Guidelines for this will be issued by the City through the Building Department.

One of the remedies is the addition of a new Section 1203.6 to the 2013 California Building Code, for requiring ventilation of weather enclosed exterior assemblies. The code currently does not address/require or is silent on the issue of ventilation for enclosed balconies or other types of projections. Ventilation is generally associated with moisture with condensation related to a temperature difference between spaces. Although the code addresses keeping moisture (weather protection) out of these areas, the basic assumption of the new section is that if there is moisture within these assembles the ventilation will help mitigate the problem. The addition of ventilation will also provide visual opportunity to inspect the enclosed or sealed off areas more easily. The alternative is to provide access panels or performing destructive demolition for inspection and repairs. So the venting in the ordinance is different from venting in the current code.

The addition of the vents may address one issue, but may also create another issue related to fire protec-tion of the structure. All new R-1 and R-2 structures are required to be fire resistive in design, Type A con-struction. This would include projections, decks and balconies. Projections are considered floor or floor/roof assemblies and required to have the same fire resistance as the rest of the building. By adding all of these vents, which is required in the ordinance to be a minimum 1/150th of the area of the space ventilated, this may compromise the fire resistance integrity of the balcony. For an 8 x 10 foot deck, a min-imum of about 77 square inches of venting is required. This is potentially a lot of unprotected openings. The City ordinance did not address this issue and the code’s vague in requiring the integrity of a balcony construction with openings.

It is my opinion that this needs to be addressed whether as a non-concern or through alternative means to meet the intent of the code for fire protection. I am less concerned about a single balcony serving an individual dwelling unit. If there is a fire below, I doubt anyone would be standing on the balcony above. What I am concerned about are the exterior egress balconies where the balcony serves as a required means of egress for the occupants of the building. A fire on a floor below could have an adverse affect on the exiting above. A solution is to require sprinkler protection over a covered balcony. Most, if not all, R1 and R2’s buildings are sprinkler protected. The effectiveness of an exterior sprinkler is always in question, but this would be a compromise. Section 1406.3 requires balconies to have the same fire resistive construction as the remainder of the building, but Exception 3 of this section does permit the use of sprinklers in lieu of the rated construction.

Only time will tell if the ordinance will make a difference. We are all hopeful that another incident like this will never happen again. Even with these requirements in the ordinance, there are no guarentees for the elimination of risk or eliminating the risk completely. This is what the code is all about, a public con-sensus approach that balances risk and safety.

(As Steve Winkel, FAIA serves on the California Building Standards Commission he’s taking this month off from ArchNews to ensure there’s no conflict of interest.)

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