City officials proposed new inspection and construction rules Tuesday aimed at preventing another balcony collapse like the one that left six dead and seven injured last week.
The failure of the cantilevered, fifth-floor apartment balcony during a 21st birthday celebration also drew scrutiny by officials beyond Berkeley. A spokeswoman said the Alameda County district attorney's office "was reaching out to the city of Berkeley and our office will begin looking at this matter."
And state officials said they would look into whether changes need to be made in California’s building code.
“We need to look at all contributing factors, including possible dry rot and the building code to determine the best possible solution,” said Evan Gerberding, a spokeswoman for the state
In a report released a week after the incident, officials with Berkeley’s Building and Safety Division confirmed suspicions that dry rot had deteriorated the wood beams supporting the balcony. They also said they found no construction code violations. Their review involved many of the same documents the division relied on to allow residents to move into the 176-unit complex in 2007.
Instead, they found problems with the code itself and proposed changes. Their findings raised questions about whether existing building codes are adequate to ensure public safety on similar balconies across the state.
In Los Angeles, a spokesman for the Department of Building and Safety said it is difficult for local governments to make that kind of guarantee. The city, like many others across the state, has no way to assess the ongoing integrity of balconies once construction is complete and people move in.
“There is no way to ensure that balconies are totally ‘safe,’ “ spokesman David Lara wrote in an email. “There are many circumstances that could trigger accidents such as the one in Berkeley.”
Municipal building codes often lag behind industry standards and following them doesn’t absolve a builder of liability, said Tom Miller, a lawyer who represents homeowners in Southern California and the Bay Area.
“Built ‘to code’ doesn’t mean there weren’t mistakes,” Miller said. “Whenever there is dry rot, that means somebody didn’t do something right.”
For example, the city’s rules, which are based on the state code, did not require inspectors to check the balcony’s waterproofing during construction.
The rules proposed Tuesday would not impose such a requirement. Instead, they would force owners to inspect all balconies, stairways and elevated decks in apartments and other multi-unit housing complexes at least once every five years.
Officials also want vents installed underneath balconies, decks and stairs.
Finally, authorities want to ban the use of untreated engineered wood — wood that is pressed together in factories and that some experts say is more at risk for dry rot.