Tragedy struck Berkeley in the early hours of June 16th, 2015 when six young people were killed and seven injured after the balcony they stood on collapsed and hurled them down onto the sidewalk. Only a month later, another young man died when the stairs of a Folsom apartment building gave way under his feet. The ensuing investigations blamed dry rot for causing the disasters by eroding the structural integrity of the buildings’ wooden members.
What is dry rot?
Dry rot is a type of wood decay. It occurs when moisture saturates wood, causing a fungus to develop and spread in search of nutrients. The fungi extract organic compounds from wood, leaving it in the dry, brittle state that gives the condition its name.
During construction, the wooden joists that supported the doomed balcony in Berkeley did not receive adequate moisture protection. Instead of covering the joists with 3/4 inch plywood, the contractor in Berkeley opted for the cheaper Oriented Standard Board (OSB) - a material known to disintegrate when soaked with water. To make matters worse, moisture-protective coating was not applied to the OSB panels.
Together, these omissions created the perfect conditions for dry rot to appear; over the years, it weakened the wooden joists enough to cause their failure.
How to identify dry rot?
Several signs can point to the existence of dry rot. The most obvious is a damp, fungal smell. Another common indicator is the appearance of spores released by the fungi, which resemble rust-colored dust.
Dry rot is easier to identify in exposed wood. The fungi are large and distinct in their deep, rusty color. The wood itself may look shrunken, warped and cracked along the grain. If any of these signs are present in your home, you may be experiencing a dry rot outbreak and need urgent professional assistance.
If the rotting wood is concealed, other red flags may come up first. The occupants of the ill-fated Berkely unit found mushrooms growing on their balcony and reported the problem to the building’s management. Alas, nothing was done in time to prevent the disaster.
SB-721 - The Balcony Bill
California’s long rainy seasons leave its aging housing stock vulnerable to dry rot outbreaks, and to prevent further disasters, the State enacted Senate Bill 721 (SB-721). Widely known as the “Balcony Bill”, the legislation aims to assess the condition of buildings’ exterior projections and force owners to conduct life-saving repairs.
Inspections mandated by SB-721 must be performed in buildings with 3 or more multifamily dwellings. Aside from a few exceptions, these must be completed by January 1st, 2025 and occur again on January 1st every 6 years.
Affected buildings being converted to condominiums for sale to the public after January 1st, 2019 must undergo the inspections before the first escrow close of a condo unit, and the inspection report must confirm the completion of all recommended repairs or replacements.
Who can perform inspections?
- licensed architect
- licensed civil or structural engineer
- building contractor with an A, B, or C-5 license issued by the Contractors State License Board
- certified building inspector or official NOT employed by the local jurisdiction
If you decide to go with a contractor, make sure that they have 5 or more years of experience in constructing multi-story wood-frame buildings under one of the specified licenses.
Inspection and report
Per the new bill, the inspection must assess the following elements of a building:
- the walking surface,
- structural frame and connector hardware,
- stairway systems,
- any other elements critical to the safety of balconies or elevated walking surfaces.
The assessment must determine whether these elements and their waterproofing components are in a safe condition and adequate working order. Their projected performance life, as well as any hazards to the occupants or the public, must also appear in the report.
Deadlines for repairs
The owner of the building must receive a copy of the inspection report within 45 days of the inspection. The owner must keep the report in their records for 2 inspection cycles.
Should the inspection uncover an immediate threat to the safety of the occupants, the report must be delivered to the owner within 15 days. Upon receipt, the owner must perform the recommended repairs immediately and notify the local enforcement agency.
If the inspector finds conditions that are not urgent, the owner must repair them within 120 days unless local authorities grant an extension.
If the owner does not perform the repairs cited in the inspection report, local enforcement authorities must send them a 30-day corrective notice. This document must spell out the potential civil penalties, as well as liens against the property if the owner continues to neglect the necessary repairs.
How Design Everest can help
If your building falls within the reach of SB-721, it’s in your best interest and civic duty to perform the mandated inspection without delay. Besides liens and other legal consequences for you, your building may put the life of its occupants and the public in danger.
We can help. Our licensed civil and structural engineers have the authority to inspect your building. What’s more, we will recommend the most economic corrections. All of it for a reasonable price.
*Note: The content published above was made in collaboration with members of Design Everest.
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