Berkeley tragedy: Death balcony builders sued for ‘shoddy’ work last year
The construction company that built the apartment where six Irish students were killed had previously paid $3m to settle a claim that shoddy construction on different apartment balconies led to rot.
Court filings show that last year Segue Construction Inc settled a lawsuit out of court over “water penetration” problems on dozens of balconies in a San Jose apartment complex.
In the lawsuit filed in 2010, the owners of the 245-unit Pines at North Park Apartments accused Segue of “failing to design the breezeways, private balconies and stairwells at the project in substantial compliance with all applicable local and state codes and according to industry standard”, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Segue, which is based in the California city of Pleasanton, blamed the problems on a subcontractor before settling with the building’s owner. A spokesman for Segue said the balconies in San Jose were “substantially different” from the one that collapsed in the Library Gardens apartments in Berkeley.
“It is like comparing apples and oranges,” he said.
Meanwhile, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said he believed there was “high probability” that water had penetrated and rotted the wooden underpinnings of the fourth-floor balcony that broke away early on Tuesday.
The news comes as officials ordered the removal of the third-floor balcony amid concerns that it could collapse, and the ‘red tagging’ of others pending inspection.
The Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco has set up an online account to raise funds for the students affected by this tragedy and to assist the immediate needs of their families.
“We are waiting for the real report,” Bates said in an interview.
“I am not an engineer, but it could turn out to be the case that the wood underpinning the fourth-floor balcony had rotted from exposure to water. In my view there is a high probability it will be.”
Independent experts who viewed the damage in person or in photographs told the San Francisco Chronicle it appeared that rainwater had penetrated the balcony’s wood structure, causing dry rot.
Such rot, they said, could happen in just a few years. The four-story Library Gardens complex was completed in 2007.
The balconies are supposed to hold at least 60 pounds per square foot under city and state codes.
The balcony that collapsed was eight-foot eight-inches long and four-foot wide, meaning it should have been able to hold roughly 2,000 pounds. Authorities have said about 13 people were on it when it gave way.
The Herald has also learned that the balconies became the focus of a planning wrangle a decade ago between the City of Berkeley design review committee and the developers.
A February 21, 2002, briefing memo about the building’s planning revealed City of Berkeley planners insisted they “need sample of balcony material” and that they would “prefer a lighter touch for two balconies on the Kittredge side”.
The City of Berkeley investigation is now focused on the water-proofing of eight critical wooden structural supports for the balcony.
Both San Francisco civil engineers and residents of the Library Gardens complex off Kittredge Street in Berkeley yesterday said dry rot was feared to have degraded the timber supports.
The balconies were initially intended to be decorative when the plans for the complex were submitted for approval a decade ago. Former Berkeley Design Review Committee official, Carrie Olson, who abstained from the approval vote, said the balconies were for decorative rather than practical purposes.
“[They were] definitely not large enough to be what the city would call an ‘open space balcony’ where groups of people could stand outside,” she said.
However, the balconies were in daily use from when the complex opened, with many residents opting to have breakfast on them to enjoy the San Francisco cityscape.
There were no use restrictions specified by law for the balconies. But only two apartments on each side of the building had a balcony.
Under a 57-page California planning regulation, dating from 1998, it emerged the balconies were simply required to have a structural capacity to handle 28kg (60lbs) per square foot. All the complex balconies were built using timber rather than steel supports.
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