Berkeley council approves new laws for building safety

A balcony at Library Gardens in downtown Berkeley collapsed Tuesday, killing six. Photo: Emily Dugdale
A balcony at Library Gardens in downtown Berkeley collapsed in June, killing six. Photo: Emily Dugdale

After a deadly balcony collapse in June that killed six and injured seven in downtown Berkeley, the City Council voted Tuesday night to change several laws to improve building safety throughout the city.

Council voted unanimously to require periodic inspections of all existing weather-exposed exterior building elements, including balconies, stairs and decks. Those elements now need to be inspected within the next six months, and every following three years.

City planning director Eric Angstadt said 6,000 buildings in Berkeley would be affected by the new program, which he said covers “anything exposed to weather that could have water intrusion, [and] yield deterioration.”

An investigation by city building inspectors identified wood rot as the sole contributing factor in the June 16 collapse of a fifth-floor balcony at the Library Gardens apartment complex.


The city investigation did not make a determination about the cause of the rot, but the Alameda County district attorney’s office has since taken up the case and is looking into the possibility of whether to file criminal negligence charges in connection with the fatalities. There have been no updates related to the investigation since the initial announcement about the effort in late June, DA’s office spokeswoman Teresa Drenick confirmed Wednesday.

Alex Roshal, who runs the city’s Building and Safety Division, told council Tuesday night that the “absolutely catastrophic material failure” that led to the balcony collapse prompted staff suggestions for how to improve the municipal code. The changes apply to residential buildings with three or more units.

The new rules require ventilation to be built into “Balconies, landings, decks, stairs and similar exterior projecting elements,” as well as the construction of an access panel beneath those elements to allow for inspection. Those elements now need to be made of wood that could withstand weather, or treated to ensure that materials would be durable.

Staff noted Tuesday night in an amendment to the new rules that “removable soffit vents” of at least 4 inches could be used to satisfy the ventilation and access panel requirements.

The modifications affect the city’s building code, housing code and rental housing safety ordinance.

Within the next six months, inspections of existing elements must be completed “by a licensed general contractor, structural pest control licensee, licensed architect, or licensed engineer, verifying that the elements are in general safe condition, adequate working order, and free from hazardous dry rot, fungus, deterioration, decay, or improper alteration. Property owners shall provide proof of compliance with this section by submitting an affidavit form provided by the City.”

Initially city staff had suggested that inspections take place every five years following the initial six-month assessment, in line with the timeline suggested for safety inspections under the fire code. But council members — after the idea was suggested by Councilman Jesse Arreguín — said they preferred a more frequent inspection schedule to ensure that building elements are safe.

Roshal noted that buildings under construction, in plan check or waiting for permits, which have these building elements, will be subject to special inspection by a third party who will need to sign off to ensure that conditions are safe. (Update, 10 p.m., According to a statement posted by the city, “For construction projects that are currently underway, the City is requiring a special inspection by third party qualified waterproofing inspectors of water- and moisture-resistive barriers and associated components within the weather-exposed and enclosed walking surfaces. Those include decks, balconies, stairway systems, any parts thereof in weather exposed areas. These third-party inspectors must be approved by the city and must file special inspection reports with the city.”)

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said Tuesday night that the ordinances go into effect immediately. Timothy Burroughs, a city spokesman, said earlier this week that the changes will need to be filed with the California Building Standards Commission, which could potentially reject the changes if they “were not expressly marked and identified or the findings were not submitted.” The commission cannot, however, evaluate their merits.

Council also voted, in response to a proposal from Councilman Arreguín, to send a letter to the commission regarding the need at the state level for “more restrictive building standards as they apply to weather exposed balconies, decks, stairs or similar elements projecting from a structure often without any additional independent supports.” The letter urges the commission to amend state standards — similar to the urgency ordinances enacted in Berkeley — “to protect the public health, safety and general welfare of the people of the State of California.”

Representatives from the American Wood Council, the Building Trades Council of Alameda County and the Structural Engineers Association of California testified before the council, urging them to be careful about potential unintended consequences of the new laws, and said they would like to help the city going forward to refine its approach.

Council members said Tuesday night, in response to those comments, that they support the idea of the creation of a panel of experts to analyze the urgency ordinances and make suggestions about how they might be improved.

Council separately voted to have that task force look at whether to require landlords to send disclosures to tenants regarding balcony construction, and post balcony weight limits on site, both of which had been suggested by Arreguín as possible next steps.

Many members of the public said they supported quick action by council to increase the city’s building safety standards.

Attorney Eustace de Saint Phalle, who said he represents a family whose daughter, 22-year-old Ashley Donohoe of Rohnert Park, died in the June collapse, told council not to delay its actions Tuesday night.

He said the family “wants to ensure you do everything you can to prevent something like this from happening again,” adding that there are likely to be similar structural problems found as a result of the upcoming inspections. De Saint Phalle noted that the contractors responsible for the construction of Library Gardens have been found to have similar flaws in other projects that were built around the same time as the Berkeley complex, which was completed in 2007.  

“It would be an amazing compounding of this tragedy not to do something now,” he said.

Agreed local historian Steve Finacom, “If the problems aren’t anticipated and fixed we’re going to have bigger problems in the future. You need to be watchful, and not just about balconies.”

The city does not currently have an inventory of existing cantilevered balconies — the style of the balcony that collapsed at Library Gardens last month. But city planning director Angstadt told council that staff hopes to undertake that work in the future if it can identify the resources to do it.

Council members said it was hard to find the words to describe the terrible tragedy that took place when the balcony collapsed in June.

“I think we’re all still reeling from the magnitude of this tragedy. Not since the 19th century have we had this kind of loss of life here,” said Councilman Max Anderson, adding that the city needs to create “a very, very strong program of prevention so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Related:
Op-ed: Let’s say ‘yes’ to a vibrant downtown Berkeley (07.10.15)
Berkeley council to address balcony safety after collapse (07.07.15)
Berkeley balcony survivor is making ‘great progress’ (07.02.15)
Berkeley balcony passed inspection before collapse (07.01.15)
Library Gardens builder seeks to stop DA from examining balcony without it being present (06.30.15)
Irish consul general: J-1 visa student community a source of ‘great pride’ (06.26.15)
DA launches criminal investigation into balcony collapse (06.25.15)
‘Severely dry rotted’ timber found after balcony collapse; city plans to stiffen safety rules (06.23.15)
Church services held for balcony collapse victims (06.20.15)
Protesters demand halt on new construction in Berkeley (06.19.15)
No ‘smoking gun’ in Berkeley balcony design (06.19.15)
As students recover in hospitals, support grows for survivors, victims of balcony collapse (06.18.15)
Coroner releases autopsy results on balcony victims; first responders sought help for stress (06.18.15)
City posts documents from balcony collapse property (06.18.15)
People gather to remember victims of Berkeley balcony collapse (06.18.15)
Firm that built Berkeley complex has been fined, sued (06.18.15)
Support springs up for families, friends of deceased (06.17.15)
As Berkeley orders removal of second balcony, questions over quality of construction (06.17.15)
Berkeley building under scrutiny before balcony collapse (06.17.15)
Mayor, consul general, lay wreaths to honor 6 killed in Berkeley balcony collapse (06.16.15)
Six who died in Berkeley: Young students in their prime (06.16.15)
Six students killed in Berkeley balcony collapse identified (06.16.15)
Berkeley orders balcony removal after tragedy kills 6 (06.16.15)
Berkeley balcony collapse leaves 6 students dead (06.16.15)

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[Editor’s Note: This story was updated after publication to clarify that Councilman Jesse Arreguín suggested shortening the inspection period from five to three years, and to explain that these new laws cover residential properties that include at least three units.]