Saturday 21 July 2018

'Potential collapse of balconies a real possibility' - Celtic Tiger homeowners warned of defects

Workmen examine the balcony following the tragedy in 2015. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Workmen examine the balcony following the tragedy in 2015. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Ryan Nugent

FEARS have been raised over potential defects to the balconies of some apartments built during the Celtic Tiger era.

The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) has warned that the “potential collapse of balconies is a real possibility” and highlighted timber-supported structures as a particular issue.

In a letter, seen by Independent.ie, addressed to property management companies and property owners, the SCSI said that water ingress in timber supports was a concern.

The news comes just a week after the third anniversary of the Berkeley balcony collapse in San Francisco, where five Irish students and one Irish-American student lost their lives.

The Irish students were Lorcan Miller, Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke, Niccolai Schuster and Eoghan Culligan.

Irish-American Ashley Donohoe (22), who lived in California and was a cousin of Ms Burke’s, also died in the collapse in the early hours of June 16.

A further seven Irish students were seriously injured when the balcony collapsed during a 21st birthday party. The students were spending a summer in California on a J1 visa.

Last year a shocking report highlighted errors in the waterproofing of the balcony when the building was built that may have contributed to the catastrophic collapse.

The 145-page report has concluded that dry rot damage which had occurred along the top of the balcony’s deck joists resulted in the balcony being unable to support the heavy load of 13 students, leading to its collapse.

The report outlines several errors in the way the balcony was waterproofed, which led to moisture saturation.

It is understood that the issues raised by the SCSI are not believed to be widespread, but could potentially affect a number of complexes.

The society added that if timber joists are properly treated with preservatives and fully protected for water ingress, there is no concern for the integrity of the joists – but the timber supports may not be visible due to cladding, so possible deterioration may not be evident.

“There is real concern that because timber-supporting balconies are clad with material, one might not identify signs of decay and the only warning of structural failure that will be given could potentially be too late,” the letter states. “In many cases, the timber supports may not be visible due to cladding surrounds. However, if water ingress is an issue, the risks of accelerated deterioration and potential collapse of balconies are real possibilities.”

The SCSI have urged owners and property management to check balconies to ensure the safety of occupants.

Noel Larkin, chairman of the Building Surveyor Group, said the buildings that show signs of problems appear to have been built in the Celtic Tiger era.

Mr Larkin said that regulation compliance at the time was not as robust as it is today, and that unskilled workers may have worked on them.

“At the time there was a fairly extensive volume of building. If you look at the volume 10 or 15 years ago compared to today, the building industry was at full capacity or maybe beyond it,” he said.

“It’s like everything else. If you’re looking at speed, cost and time, something has to suffer and unfortunately in this particular case, it was one of those, which was quality.”

He added that the potential issues may be as a result of jobs undertaken by unskilled workers, but said it was rare that timber would have been used as a structure for balconies.

“The new and improved building control regime is far more comprehensive where all designers, installers, and builders certify compliance with all aspects of installations according to the design.

“This means that there is a higher degree of inspections at key milestones so that installations and materials are checked before they are covered up – for example, by cladding.”

Mr Larkin said that not all multi-unit developments  (“muds”) are professionally managed or carry out inspections – with the SCSI looking to spread awareness of these concerns nationwide.

Earlier this month, the Herald revealed that apartment owners at the Hunterswood estate in Ballycullen, Dublin 24, received an email sent on behalf of management warning them not to step on to their balconies because they were deemed “unsafe to use”.

While the structures were not at risk of collapse, one owner claimed his foot had broken through the wooden base of his balcony.

The email, which was sent “as a matter of urgency” said: “Having recently reassessed the balconies, the engineering company has recognised that your balcony has deteriorated faster than expected.” Upon visiting the site, the damage to the balconies was evident.

Many had their cladding removed to expose support timbers, which were water-stained. Above them, the decking boards on some had rotted through.

On other buildings at the development, balconies had already been removed from the apartments and some patio doors were blocked off to reach other balconies.

Remedial works to deal with the safety issues were being undertaken at the time.

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