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Did Dry Rot Cause Devastating Berkeley Balcony Collapse in Young Building?

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Berkeley, CAThe building from which the balcony collapsed in Berkeley, California, shortly after midnight Tuesday, killing six people and injuring seven others, was completed in 2007 and built to 1998 building codes. A structural engineer quoted in the Los Angeles Times (6/16/15) noted that the balcony would have been designed to safely support the weight of up to 14 people. However, some aspects of construction and maintenance of the relatively young building have been called into question, and dry rot as a cause is under early suspicion.

The tragedy happened just after midnight June 16 during a 21st birthday celebration. Thirteen people had gathered on a 5th floor balcony when the supports gave way and the balcony collapsed, dropping all 13 people to the pavement below. Four were pronounced dead at the scene, while another two died later in the hospital. The remaining seven who were injured have, in some cases, critical and life-threatening injuries.

According to an Oakland-based civil and structural engineer, “it appears to be a classic case of dry rot, meaning water intruded into the building [and] rotted the wood” that supported the balcony, said Gene St. Onge, in comments published in the LA Times the day of the accident. He told the newspaper that photographs he had seen of the points at which the balcony separated from the building, “clearly” appears to be a case of dry rot - wood weakened over time by water access.

The structural engineer added that a structural failure involving healthy wood and the absence of dry rot would appear decidedly different.

Library Gardens is a five-story complex located at 2020 Kittredge Street in Berkeley. Construction took two years, with final inspection in January 2007. The complex was built according to construction codes brought in and effective from 1998, with balconies designed to safely withstand weight of up to 60 pounds per square foot.

The complex, then-new, was purchased in 2007 by BlackRock Properties, an investment firm based in New York with more than $4.7 trillion in assets, according to the LA Times. The complex was then leased to Greystar, a Virginia-based property management enterprise that manages some 400,000 residences around the globe.

The LA Times reports that various online reviews penned and submitted by residents since 2007 express a broad range of opinions about the quality of property management at Library Gardens. The balcony that failed was located at the top floor of the five-story complex. If water had been allowed to seep in from the roof or from some other source or location over time - without being addressed - the wood could eventually weaken and fail to support the weight for which the balcony was designed and constructed.

Even though the balcony was rated with a maximum capacity of 60 pounds per square foot, and thought to safely support 13 or 14 people, St. Onge said that the allegedly weakened wood could not support the weight for which it was originally rated, and with more than a dozen people on the balcony, “it gave way,” he said.
“It didn’t have enough residual strength, and it failed.”

The LA Times reports that all six victims killed were current or recent college students, with all but one hailing from Ireland. The dead were identified as Olivia Burke, 21; Eoghan Culligan, 21; Niccolai Schuster, 21; Lorcan Miller, 21; and Eimear Walsh, 21. The sixth victim was identified as Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.

Three similar balconies have been barred from use by municipal officials until further investigation is complete, and a fourth has been ordered dismantled.

It is yet to be determined if any wrongful death lawsuits will stem from the tragedy. Any suspicion of incomplete maintenance on the part of property management - or any potential error in constructing the balcony - will have to be vetted through a complete structural investigation to conclusively determine the cause.

Is contractor to blame?

On June 17, the LA Times reported that the general contractor responsible for the construction of the building, Segue Construction, was previously targeted in two lawsuits, in Millbrae and San Jose, over allegations of improper waterproofing of balconies that resulted in wood rot. Records are said to indicate Segue paid $3 million to resolve the San Jose case, and $3.5 million for the Millbrae lawsuit.

A spokesperson for Segue told the LA Times that previous litigation had no bearing on the tragedy that happened Tuesday at Library Gardens, in that the issues involved two different types of balconies. “That litigation, that is common to major construction projects,” Sam Singer said, on behalf of Segue. “Segue Construction has built more than 6,000 apartment units and has never had an incident like this.”

On Wednesday, the LA Times reported that St. Onge, the structural engineer from Oakland, personally attended the scene and noted, upon close inspection, that water damage was clear both on the collapsed balcony on the fifth floor, and the balcony immediately below on the fourth floor. The lower balcony was ordered dismantled on June 17.

“You can see evidence of water at the front, some staining at the front face of the lower balcony,” St. Onge said. “There’s some brown staining in the front.”

There are a variety of ways water could have leaked into the wood joists. “It could’ve been that the door above the balcony didn’t have a proper waterproof seal below it,” St. Onge said in the June 17th issue of the LA Times. “It could’ve been water coming in from the roof down the interior of the wall. It’s a tricky matter and it takes some investigation to determine where it came from.”

The LA Times reported that one current resident of Library Gardens claims that the roof of her building routinely leaks water into one of her apartment bedrooms during rainy seasons. “It shorts out the light in the ceiling,” Rahila Jarrett told the newspaper.

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