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Potentially Unsafe Balconies and Balustrades

23 August 2002

Potentially Unsafe Balconies and Balustrades

The Building Industry Authority today advised that certain balconies and balustrades on houses and apartments could be in danger of collapsing and causing a serious accident.

Authority chief executive Bill Porteous said the warning followed formal advice from an independent group (the Weathertightness Overview Group) commissioned by the Authority to investigate the “leaky building syndrome” issue.

Balconies, decks, and the like at risk are those that rely for their structural support on timber beams. Those at greatest risk include balconies on buildings with lightweight claddings that imitate concrete or masonry, balconies supported by untreated kiln dried timber, and balconies on which water pools.

A balustrade is a barrier built around the edge of a balcony, deck, or similar construction, to prevent people from falling. The types at risk are “enclosed balustrades” covered with what appears to be solid cladding that imitates concrete or masonry. Water can leak inside the cladding and rot the framing timber.

The Authority advises people with such balconies or balustrades to seek advice from an appropriately qualified expert. The local city or district council will be able to assist in this.

Mr Porteous said the Authority had begun a process with councils to identify how widespread the problem is. While the extent of the risk is not presently known the advice from the Overview Group was sufficiently strong to necessitate a public warning. The Authority was also mounting an advertising campaign to inform homeowners of the potential risk.

“Assessing the extent of the risk is difficult because in many cases the danger is literally hidden behind the cladding - there is no external evidence. However, it is a real risk and we advise a cautious approach.”

“If people are worried about a balcony or balustrade, they should avoid subjecting the structures to load. If possible, do not use the structures until they have been checked out by somebody with the appropriate qualifications.”

Risk Factors

Balconies at greatest risk are:

- those using untreated kiln-dried timber for the support beams.

- those on buildings clad with lightweight materials imitating concrete or masonry

- those with a surface on which water pools

- those that move when walked on or where there are damp spots or stains near where the balcony joins the main construction

These balconies are mostly found on split level or 2-3 storey houses or multi-storey apartment buildings. Balconies using steel beams are not affected.

Balustrades at greatest risk are:

- those clad with lightweight materials imitating concrete or masonry

- those with a flat top on which the water sits

- those with a railing attached to the top where water can leak down screw holes or other penetrations

- those that wobble or where damp spots or stains can be seen on the cladding

These balustrades are mostly found on split level or 2-3 storey houses or multi-storey apartment buildings. They may or may not be associated with at-risk balconies.

It is important to stress that in the case of either structure there may not be evident warning signs and the danger may be completely hidden.

What Should People Do?

People concerned about either type of structure should consult an expert advisor as soon as possible.

Necessary qualifications are:

- the capability to carry out moisture content measurement (destructive and non-destructive)

- experience in dealing with weathertightness issues

- an understanding of the effect of moisture on building materials and implications for repair work

- a working knowledge of timber frame construction and appropriate remedial work

- the ability to document and report each situation for the ongoing management of the weathertightness issue in general

- adequate professional indemnity insurance

Your local city or district council will be able to assist you in this.

Regardless of people’s concerns about their balcony or balustrade, the Authority strongly advises owners to have regular safety inspections of their homes, for the same reasons that cars have regular warrant of fitness inspections.

Further information on at-risk balconies and balustrades (including photographic examples) is available on the Authority’s website - www.bia.govt.nz.

The Weathertightness Overview Group is expected to provide its final report to the Authority by the end of August. Its findings and recommendations will be made public as soon as possible after that.

ENDS

Contact:

John Walsh - 021 660 776

About the Building Industry Authority:

The Building Industry Authority is an independent Crown entity established in 1992. Its fundamental purpose is to manage New Zealand’s building legislation.

The Authority comprises eight members who have been appointed by the Minister of Internal Affairs for a specified term. Authority members are supported in their work by a small team of technical and professional staff.

About the Weathertightness Overview Group:

The Building Industry Authority Overview Group on Weathertightness was engaged in February as an independent team of three people to conduct an inquiry into widespread claims that new buildings are failing to stay weathertight.

The OG is chaired by Don Hunn, former State Services Commissioner and Head of the NZ Public Service 1987-97. The OG’s final report is expected at the end of August.


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