Protect Residents with Regular Balcony Inspections
Last May, a young social worker fell to his death from the 24th-floor balcony of his New York City apartment building after part of the railing gave way. Officials from the city's Department of Buildings (DOB) reported that the balcony's railing was “loose and damaged,” and that the owners of the building had failed to inspect the balconies for the past 10 years.
The incident triggered the DOB to conduct a massive citywide sweep of balcony safety conditions, visiting more than 530 buildings in a matter of weeks. Inspectors discovered loose railings, unsecured railing posts, and crumbling concrete on many, and balconies in 16 buildings were found to be so unsafe that residents were ordered to stay off them.
Reduce Risks by Inspecting Critical Elements
Tragedies like the one in New York reveal the importance of conducting regular inspections of balcony railings. If your tax credit site has units with balconies or decks, your residents will probably be spending more time on them now that summer is here. Have you done all that you can to ensure their safety? Let's take a look at the most critical areas of concern.
Baluster spacing. Depending on how old your balcony railings are, the spacing between the bars may pose a risk for small children. The balusters are spaced farther apart in older railings, explains Kim Paarlberg, senior staff architect with the International Code Council's Technical Services Division. The most recent International Building Code (IBC) requires that balusters or other decorative infill must be spaced less than four inches apart to ensure child safety.
To check for proper spacing during inspections, Paarlberg suggests bringing along a ball with a four-inch diameter to see if it will fit between the columns (the sphere represents a child's head). The balusters should be close enough to prevent the ball from pushing through.
Guard rail height. The guard rail must be at least 42 inches high, “which is based on the center of gravity in an average adult male,” Paarlberg notes. (The center of gravity must be lower than the railing to prevent someone from falling over it.)
Connections. The structural stability of the guard rail depends on how it is attached to the building, Paarlberg says. The IBC states that balcony guards must be designed to resist a load of 50 pounds per linear foot (pound per foot) applied in any direction at the top, and that load has to transfer to the supports. And guards must be able to resist a single concentrated load of 200 pounds applied in any direction at any point along the top, and must have attachment devices and supporting structure to transfer the loading to appropriate structural elements of the building.
In other words, if you're leaning on the railing, the top of the railing is supposed to be able to take 200 pounds of pressure, says Eric Barker, American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) certified inspector and owner of Moraine Woods Consulting, a full-time home inspection company based in Lake Barrington, Ill. “Virtually all of them will not.” Why? “If you transfer that 200 pounds down to the base of the railing post, that 200 pounds comes out to be about 1,700 pounds at the base.”
To take that amount of pressure, you want to make sure that balcony railing posts are bolted in place. Yet, wood railings are often nailed in place, Barker says. “Nails don't have the sheer strength or the withdrawal resistance that you would have with a bolt.” Even with bolts, you have to consider what it is being bolted into and how it is secured, he adds.
In addition to the posts, check to see whether the guard rail is properly secured to the building. If the guard rail is attached by masonry anchors that secure it to the building, make sure that the anchors are not pulling loose or the brick is not breaking. If the railing is steel, look for rust where the steel post goes down into the concrete. Because that is an area that often is not painted or primed, it can be prone to rusting, Barker points out.
If you have wooden railings, check for decaying wood. Rotting most often occurs at places where water can seep into the wood, so carefully check anywhere that nails or screws penetrate the wood.
Inspection Frequency Depends on Materials, Location
“If there is one thing that will degrade a building, it's lack of attention,” says Barker. “When I find major issues in a building, they are usually due to improperly installed components or neglect.”
So how often should you inspect balconies and railings to ensure that they don't fall into disrepair? The frequency will depend largely on the type of materials used and your local weather situation, says Paarlberg. For instance, if you have metal railings and your building is in a high-humidity area, such as Louisiana, or in a high-snow and -rain area like Seattle, or in a deep-freeze location like Chicago, then she suggests inspecting railings twice a year—both before and after the winter season. Buildings with wood railings that are located in an area where termites are found may also require more frequent inspections.
Notify Residents of Damage Immediately
If you find any damage to balcony railings, immediately notify the residents not to use the balcony until the railing can be fixed. Then make sure that the repairs are made as quickly as possible—especially during the summer months, when residents may be less likely to comply with a request to stay off their balconies.
Educate Residents on Balcony Safety
Probably the best protection against accidents, injury, and death from balcony falls is resident education.
“We try to do everything we can to provide at least a minimal level of safety in the code, but there is no way to address every possible scenario that might happen,” says Paarlberg.
Be aware of places where children can find handholds and footholds to climb balcony railings. Educate residents, especially parents of small children, about the dangers of placing benches, chairs, or tables that children can climb on top of next to balcony guards.
“Balcony safety is a combination of proper construction, regular maintenance, and educating residents on the key safety issues,” says Paarlberg. “If you can accomplish all three, then you can limit the accidents as much as possible.”
Kim Paarlberg: Senior Staff Architect, Technical Services Division, International Code Council; (888) 422-7233; www.iccsafe.org.
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