Remnants of beams from removed balconies show contrast between the condition of the wood from the collapsed balcony and the balcony it fell upon at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, on Thursday, June 18, 2015. Six people died and seven were seriously injured in the early Tuesday morning accident. Photo: David Yee ©2015
Remnants of beams from removed balconies show contrast between the condition of the wood from the collapsed balcony and the balcony it fell upon. Photo: David Yee

In a series of stories, Berkeleyside examines the building where six people died and seven were seriously injured Tuesday after a balcony collapsed. Part 1 looks at a history of complaints by residents, Part 2, below, examines potential issues surrounding the balcony construction, and Part 3 looks at some of the issues faced by the company that built the apartment complex where Tuesday’s tragedy took place.

Crews planned to take down another balcony at Library Gardens on Wednesday, after the city of Berkeley on Tuesday ordered it to be removed. Inspectors determined that the fourth-floor balcony “was structurally unsafe and presented a collapse hazard endangering public safety.”

The small balcony is directly underneath the fifth-floor balcony that collapsed early Tuesday, sending six young college students to their deaths. The fifth-floor balcony was removed Tuesday for analysis by the city. (Initially the city said the failed balcony was on the fourth floor, but later revised this description.)

Read complete balcony collapse coverage on Berkeleyside.

The removal was done on behalf of the owners of the 176-unit complex. Other balconies in the building have been red-tagged, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko.

The finding that yet another balcony in Library Gardens may have been in danger of collapsing is focusing attention on the quality of the construction of the complex, which was built from 2005 to 2007 by TransAction Companies, designed by Thomas. P. Cox Architects of Irvine.

What appears to be rotting wood can be seen on the remains of the balcony that collapsed at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Photo: David Yee
What appears to be rotting wood can be seen on the remains of the balcony that collapsed at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Photo: David Yee

Is wood rot to blame?

Experts around the state who have looked at photographs of the fallen balcony all point to wood rot as the cause of the collapse. And while their thoughts should be considered speculative, the consensus is that water seeped behind the balcony, rotting the wooden beams holding up the structure.

And the sight of what remained of the balcony that sheared off the wall Tuesday morning was shocking: pieces of decaying beam dotted with a white substance that some speculated might be mold.

Gene St. Onge, an Oakland civil and structural engineer, said water seepage appears to have been the cause of the balcony collapse. It was probably caused by improperly applying the waterproofing system, he said.

“Water should not get in there, that is why the waterproofing system and application is so critical,” St. Onge told Berkeleyside. “If it’s done right, my guess is this wouldn’t have happened at all.”

Scott Williams, whose Marin County firm, Williams & Gumbiner, specializes in construction defect litigation, said contractors fail to properly waterproof balconies all the time, and water intrusion is a frequent focal point of litigation.

“They have probably had water entering slowly year by year every winter into that deck assembly ever since the deck was built. Finally it got to the point where the dry rot got so extensive that those joists became so degraded that eight or nine people or 10 people went out on that deck and the weight – boom – down it went.”

If water damage was the cause of the disaster, who is to blame? The architect who designed the building? The developer, who hired the contractor? The contractor who hired the carpenters and the subcontractors who installed the steel, the stucco, the weatherproofing? BlackRock, who purchased Library Gardens from a now-defunct limited partnership called Library Gardens LLC? Greystar, the company that is managing the apartment complex for the limited partnership, Granite Library Gardens LP, that owns the property? Or the city of Berkeley for not finding the defect that may have led the balcony to collapse?

Williams said one thing is clear: the city of Berkeley and its building inspectors are not liable.

“Building inspectors are not responsible because they have government immunity,” said Williams. “If you could hold building inspectors liable for defective construction, the entire state of California would be bankrupt because no public entity would be able to survive all the construction defect litigation.”

One reason they are immune is that the law acknowledges that building inspectors are generalists and are not necessarily well-versed on some of the arcane and complex areas of the code. In addition, the law only requires inspectors to look at particular areas of buildings, he said.

“There are reasons problems get past the building inspection process all the time,” said Williams. “One, building inspectors are generalists. If you were to look at the building code there are complex structural provisions that structural engineers will debate what they mean. There are complex electrical provisions that electrical engineers will debate what they mean.”

“[Building inspectors] do spot tests, they do spot checks, and by code there are only certain things they are supposed to look at, the foundation, certain parts of the building,” he said. “Deck balconies? I don’t even know if that is one of the things on the list that they look at.”

But the building code says even if a building inspector has missed a problem in construction, the builder is liable for all defects, said Williams.

Berkeley ordered the owners/managers of 2020 Kittredge St. to remove another balcony because it was structurally unsound.
On Tuesday, Berkeley ordered the owner of 2020 Kittredge to remove another balcony because it was structurally unsound. Image: City of Berkeley

A Berkeleyside review of the building inspection documents for Library Gardens at 2020 Kittredge St. did not turn up any specific reference to a city inspection of the waterproofing of the balconies.

Williams said virtually everyone else involved in the construction of Library Gardens could probably be named in a lawsuit, including those who framed the building, put in membranes, flashing, exterior siding and the stucco, among others.

The list also includes the developer, TransAction Companies, which formed a limited liability corporation, Library Gardens LLC, to build the apartment complex. That LLC has disbanded, but Williams said if he were the attorney for the families of the young people who died, he would go after the individual members of the LLC.

“They always think they have created this LLC that gets them off the hook, but it does not,” he said.

Suing BlackRock and its subsidiary, Granite, which owns the property, and Greystar, which manages it, is more problematic. They would be liable only if they knew there was a problem with the balcony and neglected to address it. Then they would be negligent and vulnerable to a lawsuit. Since the building is only 8 years old, they may not have been aware of problems, he said.

The developer behind the project, John DeClercq, who worked as senior vice president for TransAction Companies, defended the quality of the building’s construction Tuesday. He said the general contractor had assembled a respected group of subcontractors.

“It was a reputable local general contractor,” said DeClercq. “They hired the best steel and concrete subcontractors. It was a very strong team.”

DeClercq could not remember the name of the contractor at the time of his conversation with Berkeleyside, but it was Segue Construction, which was formerly located in Richmond but now has its headquarters in Pleasanton. It has built dozens of buildings similar to Library Gardens around the Bay Area, according to a map prepared by KTVU. Segue Construction has been involved in at least one lawsuit over waterproofing, according to court records.

A balcony at Library Gardens in downtown Berkeley collapsed Tuesday, killing six. Photo: David Yee
A balcony at Library Gardens in downtown Berkeley collapsed Tuesday, killing six. Photo: David Yee

Where did the water penetrate?

Lloyd Dinkelspiel, who worked as a building inspector for the city of Brentwood for 10 years and in construction management for five (and who is the brother of Berkeleyside executive editor Frances Dinkelspiel), said one critical question is where the water seeped in.

“The question is… where was the source of water infiltration?” said Dinkelspiel. “In buildings, the number one source of water infiltration is typically penetrations in a water-resistant barrier. An example of this would be windows and doors, electrical boxes in exterior walls, deck-to-wall junctures, vent pipe or skylights in the roof system, etc.”

Photos of the balcony indicate that the wood decay occurred very near the deck-to-wall juncture, he said. What remains to be determined is whether the source of the water is from the flashing of the door or the installation of the deck waterproof membrane, he said.

While there was no reference to Berkeley building inspectors looking at the waterproofing of the balconies, Dinkelspiel did find numerous inspections of the lath, which he assumed included the flashing of the doors, windows and other penetrations of the exterior walls.

“From personal experience, unless you provide continual, as opposed to periodic, inspections of the stucco lath and flashing you cannot really be assured of the quality of the installation. I have never heard of a building department providing or requiring continual inspection for lath and flashing,” said Dinkelspiel.

The city has taken possession of the balcony that collapsed and will inspect it as part of its investigation, said Chakko, the city spokesman.

Questions have also been raised about whether the deck, which measures about 4.5 feet by 8.9 feet (4’-5¾” x 8’-10¾”), was overcrowded and that, perhaps, the weight of the young people on it contributed to its collapse.

The deck was constructed to 1988 code standards, which required it to hold 60 pounds per square foot, according to Chakko. That meant the balcony should have been able to support at least 2,391 pounds, which is more than the 13 students standing on it would have weighed, assuming an average weight of 150 pounds (total of 1,950 pounds).

Steel beams would not have been used to connect the balcony to the building because it is a hard connection to build, said Dinkelspiel. In general, contractors use wooden beams that have been weatherproofed to provide support for balconies.

New information from the City of Berkeley, namely the name of the architects and the exact dimensions of the balcony deck, was added to this story after publication.

This is Part 2 in a series of stories, in which Berkeleyside examines the Berkeley building where six people died and seven were seriously injured Tuesday. Part 1 looked at a history of complaints by residents, and Part 3 looked at some of the issues faced by the company that built the apartment complex where Tuesday’s tragedy took place.

Berkeley building under scrutiny before balcony collapse (06.17.15)
Mayor, consul general, lay wreaths to honor 6 killed in Berkeley balcony collapse (06.16.15)
Six who died in Berkeley: Young students in their prime (06.16.15)
Six students killed in Berkeley balcony collapse identified (06.16.15)
Berkeley orders balcony removal after tragedy kills 6 (06.16.15)
Berkeley balcony collapse leaves 6 students dead (06.16.15)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...