Berkeley City Council has passed new building inspection regulations designed to prevent another tragedy like the balcony collapse last month that killed six students and injured seven others.
Following a unanimous vote by council members, the new inspection laws take effect immediately, with others to be considered – including the requirement to use steel reinforcements in all new balconies.
The laws require a mandatory inspection of all existing balconies, decks, stairs and other weather-exposed elements of all properties in Berkeley within six months, with a repeat inspection every three years.
They also require existing balconies and other weather-exposed elements to have adequate ventilation to allow air to flow freely in an effort to prevent against dry-rot, as well as requiring the construction of an access panel to allow for periodic inspections.
The initial council inspection determined that the balcony at the Library Gardens’ development had collapsed because the wooden cantilevered balcony joints had completely snapped off due to extensive dry rot.
They emphatically stated that the number of people on the balcony at the time was not an issue.
Addressing the council, one of the planning officials described the incident as “an absolutely catastrophic material failure”.
The balcony collapsed around 1am on 16 June as a group of students were celebrating a 21st birthday party.
Five Irish students – Lorcán Miller, 21, Niccolai Schuster, 21, Eoghan Culligan, 21, Olivia Burke, 21, Eimear Walsh, 21 – and one Irish-American student 22-year-old Ashley Donohoe – were killed and seven others were injured, only one of whom has yet returned to Ireland.
The tragedy was the greatest loss of life that had occurred in a single incident in Berkeley since the 19th century.
Council officials estimated that there are some 6,000 buildings which will require immediate inspections and admitted that they do not have adequate resources to carry out those inspections.
The council also voted unanimously in favour of a proposal put forward by council member Jesse Arreguin to send a letter to the California Building Standards Commission urging it change the Statewide Building code “to require reinforcement of weather-exposed balconies with corrosion resistant steel in all new balcony designs”.
The new regulations came from proposals made by council Planning and Development Department staff who conducted an investigation of the scene in the immediate aftermath of the collapse.
The proposals initially called for a repeat inspection every five years, but it was unanimously agreed that five years was not frequent enough to catch water intrusion or the formation of dry rot before potentially major damage was caused, and so it was amended to three years.
In addition to a stricter inspection regime, effective immediately, the council decided to establish a taskforce to look at changing regulations surrounding what balconies are actually made of.
A number of people representing professional organisations including architects, structural engineers and carpenters, addressed the council and volunteered their services to form a task force to redraft building and inspection codes.
During the debate, it was revealed that there are only three inspectors for 25,000 homes in the city of Berkeley and Eric Angstadt, the Director of the Planning and Development Department admitted that they were “struggling” to find the resources to carry out the extra inspections.
There is currently no law requiring balconies or any other exterior projections to be inspected to see if they are unsafe or in need of repairs.
It was also said during the hearing that there was no requirement to inspect weather-proofing at the time of construction.
At the council meeting, multiple condolences were expressed to the bereaved families and many others spoke of their deep appreciation for the work of the first responders and other council officials in the wake of the tragedy.
A lawyer representing the Donohoe family also addressed the council, saying that George and Jacqui Donohoe, who lost their daughter Ashley in the collapse, had vowed to do everything they could to stop a tragedy like this every happening again.
Eustace de Saint Phalle of the Rains Lucia Stern law firm spoke on behalf of the couple. To a round of applause he urged the council to take urgent action, saying to do nothing would be an “amazing compounding of the tragedy”.
He said the Donohoe family would like to inspections carried out at least every year, adding that anything less frequent was too long.
Students and other Berkeley residents also addressed the public hearing, voicing their concerns about the condition of rental buildings and the falling standards in rushed construction.
One woman called for a list to be published detailing the condition of all rental properties in the city so parents could know the condition of where their children were living.
Several council members said they also wanted to see new requirements on developers and contractors to declare if they have been involved in any lawsuits or settlements relating to other developments.
It has emerged that the construction company involved in the Library Gardens project, Segue Construction, had been involved in several multi-million dollar settlements previously.
Yesterday, lawmakers at the California State Assembly rejected emergency legislation tabled there requiring such declarations.
The bill failed at committee stage by a 7-3 vote with four abstentions after politicians said they needed more time to discuss amendments that would strengthen the bill.