After recent fatal collapses of an apartment stairwell in Folsom and a balcony in Berkeley, officials said rotted wood failed to support the weight of the victims.
While building experts don’t know how widespread the underlying conditions are, they say problems are common enough that another building failure could happen and that lawmakers and the construction industry should work together to find solutions.
“The potential is out there for another collapse,” said Winfred DeLeon, Sacramento’s chief building official. “Dry rot is somewhat common in our region.”
Some structural engineers say the deaths highlight the need to use stronger building materials, while others say they show the need for better weatherproofing and maintenance. The Berkeley City Council last week approved regulations on the construction and inspection of balconies and other external structures, and building trade associations are discussing whether such measures are needed statewide.
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“This is not just a local issue,” said Ryan Kersting, president of the Structural Engineers Association of California, which is forming a task force with the American Institute of Architects and the California Building Officials to examine how to respond to these problems. “This is going to follow through to other jurisdictions.”
In Folsom, a July 3 stairway collapse killed a 26-year-old master’s degree student visiting a friend at a 15-year-old apartment complex. The June 16 balcony collapse in Berkeley killed six young adults, most of whom had just arrived from Ireland for the summer.
DeLeon said the design of the stairs in Folsom is common for apartments built during the Sacramento region’s building boom that ended about 10 years ago. The stairs that collapsed at the Legends at Willow Creek in Folsom were outdoors, with steel and concrete steps bolted into wood.
Wood can rot when exposed to excess moisture or water, so it needs to be covered by a protective barrier, DeLeon said. Ron Takiguchi, vice president of California Building Officials, takes a similar view.
“Dry rot, the culprit in all of this, is a matter of maintenance or improper installation,” said Takiguchi, Santa Monica’s chief building official.
Ken Venolia, a retired structural engineer in Sacramento, said builders should not use wood to support outdoor weight-bearing structures.
“Why take the risk?” he said. “These owners (in Folsom and Berkeley) and insurance companies are going to pay more than it would have cost to use steel or concrete supporting material.”
The Berkeley City Council has asked the California Building Standards Commission to update the state’s building code to require corrosive-resistant steel as a support for balconies. In a letter to the commission, the council says “there’s a possibility that the current standard allowing wood reinforcing of balcony floors will mean that failures in sealing and subsequent water damage may lead to more balcony collapses.”
The Berkeley council has updated its code to require the use of “naturally durable or preservative-treated” wood for structural supports. The council also approved a requirement that apartment balconies be inspected by the city every three years.
Andy Davidson, vice president for construction at Anton Development Company, which builds and manages apartment complexes, said requiring steel as an anchoring material is “overkill.” He said wood can support weight just fine as long as it is properly waterproofed. Apartment managers need to visually inspect units for water stains monthly and have a structural wood rot and pest inspector perform tests if stains are found near wood supports, he said. Annually, they need to check drains and other features that can cause excess water to get into the wood.
Cities do not formally inspect waterproofing as part of their permitting process, and that needs to change, said Davidson, a member of the executive board at the North State Building Industry Association.
So far, Folsom officials have proposed no new procedures following the fatal collapse at Legends at Willow Creek. Chief Building Official Steve Burger has said that unless someone files a complaint, the city’s responsibility for building safety ends when the city approves a structure for occupancy. He said he is reluctant to propose new safety measures until he has a better sense of what caused the wood rot.
Unlike Sacramento and Berkeley, Folsom lacks a program to inspect rental housing. In Sacramento, after an initial inspection finds no deficiencies or the property owner corrects problems, the owner is required to perform a self-inspection annually.
Folsom Councilwoman Kerri Howell said she doesn’t want a similar program in her city.
“It puts a burden on government that it shouldn’t necessarily have,” she said. “It should be a burden of the property owner.”
In 2001, the city of Folsom received an anonymous complaint about a stairway at Fairmont at Willow Creek, which is next to Legends at Willow Creek and built by the same contractor, Fairmark Development, according to information obtained through a California Public Records Act request. The caller said the stairway did not meet code but did not specify the exact nature of the problem or which stairwell at the complex was failing.
A Folsom building official spoke to apartment management, was told there was no problem, and the city closed the case, records show.
The stairs at Fairmont at Willow Creek are built the same way as those at Legends at Willow Creek, with metal and concrete walkways supported by wood, city officials said.
A letter posted at Fairmont at Willow Creek last week noted the death at the neighboring complex and said “we want to reassure our residents of the structural integrity of the stairwells in our community. We have been proactively repairing, reinforcing and weatherproofing our stairwells for over the past three years to prevent such an incident and to ensure the safety of our property.”
Builders must get a permit for any work involving “the removal or cutting away of any structural beam or load-bearing support,” according to a state code cited by Elaine Anderson, Folsom deputy city manager. The city has no record of the complex receiving building permits for stairway improvements, she said.
Rich Fagan of Austin, Texas-based CWS Apartment Homes, which operates Fairmont, said the company has done extensive waterproofing of the stairways at the Folsom complex and found no safety problems with them.
Fairmark Development also built apartments in Rocklin and Sacramento. The company is no longer in business, records show, but was one of several related development and property management companies operating out of the same San Diego office, including Fairmark Residential, which is still operating. Officials at Fairmark Residential have not responded to repeated messages since the fatality at Legends at Willow Creek.
Fairmark Development built Trovas Apartments on Natomas Boulevard in Sacramento, records show. The complex is managed by Greystar, a Charleston, S.C.,-based company that manages complexes around the world, including the one where six people died in Berkeley. The manager at Trovas said he could not comment, and Greystar officials in Charleston did not return messages.
The complex has outdoor stairwells bolted into wood, Sacramento city officials said. The city has not received any complaints related to stairway safety at Trovas, said Carl Simpson, code and housing enforcement manager for the city.
The stairwells at the Meridian at Stanford Ranch in Rocklin are also outdoors and bolted into wood, said Marc Mondell, the city’s economic and community development director. He said city officials recently conducted a visual inspection of the stairwells, did not find any obvious problems and encouraged the apartment management to conduct further tests.
Editor’s note (July 22): Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misidentified Winfred DeLeon. He is the chief building official for the city of Sacramento, not Sacramento County.