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The Berkeley Balcony Tragedy

More Inspections Aren't Enough

By Tyler P. Berding, J.D., Ph.D.

In the early morning of June 16, 2015, in Berkeley, California, the lives of 6 young people were snuffed out because the balcony they were standing on collapsed. Building failures happen all the time, but the press and government largely ignore them because nobody died. With these six tragic deaths (and serious injury to seven others) the press is now all over it. We have daily reports of experts opining on the cause (rot caused by moisture intrusion into the wood beams supporting the balcony.) We have interviews with Berkeley city officials (there were numerous inspections of this 8-year old building but none of the waterproofing.) The opinions page trumpets that inspections must increase to prevent another tragic event. Yes there should be more inspections by municipalities, and building owners, but it won't be enough.

For 40 years I have litigated cases involving design and construction errors. My firm has represented the owners of older buildings where rotted framing is commonplace but unknown until it gets so bad it threatens building components and human safety. We have represented the owners of new buildings like the one in Berkeley where water has seeped into wall cavities and induced rot and mold because the waterproofing was not installed properly, and many projects where the installation of waterproofing was defective but had not yet led to a catastrophic failure. The local municipality had specifically inspected none of these instances of failed waterproofing. Why? Because even if the inspector stood over the workmen 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and watched them put together every waterproof assembly, mistakes would still occur.

Probably the joint where the balcony surface abutted the wall of the building or the flashing intended to protect the wood beams from moisture allowed water to enter the assembly and rot the beams. The experts who examined the building plans have said that the architect likely provided proper waterproofing details, so the question is why did it fail?

A quick answer might be that the contractor or its employee were careless, and that could be. But more likely they were not adequately trained or incentivized to follow the drawings and build it correctly. Many years ago the building trades utilized an apprentice system whereby a master tradesman supervised the training of new recruits until they too were skilled at their craft. Craftsmanship was a source of personal pride and well-trained workers were valued and given the latitude to build a proper building.

But we are not training enough craftsmen. The enormous demand for housing in recent decades has outdistanced the supply of trained labor and the result is buildings that bristle with mistakes. Couple that with “value engineering” to reduce costs by employing materials that do not survive unless constructed in a very precise manner and you have a recipe for disaster. Lawyers and not building inspectors have become the quality control, unfortunately well after the fact.

The forensic inspections we conduct on clients' buildings frequently reveal instances of work done improperly and contrary to the designer's intentions. If we can find these defects, why can't the original builders? Carelessness could be one excuse, but a lack of training adequate to recognize poor quality construction, coupled with a willingness to accept cheap and expeditious materials and methods to meet demand and cost controls are more likely. Whatever it is, it has resulted in failures of building components some of which pose hazards to life and safety.

Designers are also not without fault. Choosing materials without regard to where the project will be located, failing to provide adequate details to guide the contractor, creating architectural interest at the expense of building performance, can all result in a failed building. Design errors can be caught before they are incorporated into a building but only if the contractor constructing it is trained and incentivized to recognize errors and bring them to the owner's attention.

This brings us back to the lack of skill and training. Foremen and crewmembers should have enough experience and understanding of fundamental building practices to avoid obvious errors. A joint or juncture of two materials or building components does not require exotic materials or methods to be built waterproof. This is Construction 101. When an assembly in an eight-year old building allows so much water to enter that it rots major framing members in less than ten years, someone didn't know what they were doing. If it turns out that the design was flawed, the contractor didn't know enough to bring that flaw to the owner's attention. There will be a lot of finger pointing and accusations back and forth over who committed the error, but the contractor or workman charged with creating a waterproof joint or transition should have been skilled enough to recognize that what they were building would not work.

Technical training in construction techniques can begin in high school or community college and we have an obligation to see it does once again. Trade unions have programs to train their members which should be encouraged and combined with public school education programs. There is a technology gap—more jobs than we have trained people to employ. That gap doesn't just occur in Silicon Valley. It also exists in the construction trades.

You won't find a skilled carpenter who can recognize serious errors by trolling by your local convenience store. Real craftsman have pride in what they do, are properly compensated, and are trained in programs that teach construction fundamentals, how to read drawings and apply them correctly. If avoiding dangerous errors means spending more private and public funds on technical training then it is logical that we do that. Quality construction will pay for itself in lower insurance (and legal) costs, less maintenance and repair expense, and greater safety for building occupants.

The tragedy in Berkeley did not have to happen, but a lot of potential tragedies are lurking in buildings that were constructed in haste or without a sufficiently skilled workforce. When the housing market is hot and you can sell anything that you can get to market, the incentive to cut corners and get labor wherever you can find it is always there. Builders, municipalities, and state legislatures now have the wakeup call it sadly took six deaths to provide. More inspections and testing of construction are absolutely called for in both new and old buildings. But without a properly trained workforce that can avoid defective construction and build quality buildings, this won't be the last tragedy we read about.

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