Can we ever take the condition of a building for granted? Do we? The building occupants, to get in and out of their units on second and higher stories, use components like balconies and staircases every day. Do we really know if they are safe? As property managers or board members of community associations, how can we be sure? When was the last time someone took a professional, in depth look at those parts of your buildings?
We know from reading dozens of expert investigations that quite often some of the most insidious problems are hidden from view—for example, weaknesses in structural components that are used every day. This is especially true in older apartment complexes that have been converted to condominiums. Years of neglect by the apartment owners are passed on to the condominium buyers with no warnings or disclosures.
Now we find a similar situation that almost turned very tragic:
KRON TV News, April 1, 2010
ANTIOCH (BCN) -- Building inspectors found evidence of dry rot at an apartment complex in Antioch where three people fell from a second-floor balcony Thursday morning after a wooden railing gave way, Antioch code enforcement manager Ryan Graham said. As a result, he said, the residents of three units at the complex will have to be temporarily relocated. The fall occurred at about 7:30 a.m. at the Twin Creek Apartments at 1111 James Donlan Blvd. Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Alan Hartford said the victims are two women and a young girl about 8 or 9 years old.
"They were leaning against a railing and the railing gave way," Hartford said. The three fell about 15 feet to the ground below, an area with dirt and bushes, he said. One woman, who may have briefly lost consciousness, appeared to have suffered head, neck and back injuries and was airlifted to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Hartford said. The second woman and the girl were taken to hospitals by ground ambulance. The victims are all expected to survive, Hartford said. He said the little girl was the least injured.
This incident could just as easily have happened in a condominium complex, in fact there is probably no appreciable difference between this complex and many conversions, or for that matter, many older condominium buildings. Most low-rise multi-family complexes rely on wood members for structural support throughout. Wood rots over time, especially if the water proofing elements of the buildings have not been adequately maintained.
The consequences of this accident, beyond the injuries to the victims, included the relocation of the residents of several units. The landlord's liability insurance will probably defend the legal claims that will be asserted against the building's owner, but unless these deficiencies are all repaired, and soon, the landlord may find him or herself without liability insurance hereafter. The same results would occur if this were a condominium association. The City of Antioch has also issued orders to the landlord that will require a professional inspection and needed repairs, perhaps not only to the failed railing, but to other components in the complex as well. Read on:
Graham said building inspectors have not yet determined if the dry rot caused the railing to give way, but have instructed the owners to hire a contractor to do a thorough inspection of the building and report back to the city with findings and proposed fixes.
In the meantime, Graham said, the city has determined that two stairwells in the apartment complex are unsafe and the building owner has been instructed to relocate residents of three apartments and limit access to those stairwells.
The building, which has 244 units, is about 30 years old and is generally in good condition, Graham said. The building management has been cooperating fully with city officials on the issue, he said.1
And what about that last observation: “The building…is generally in good condition?” How do they know that? Perhaps from a casual observation someone might draw that conclusion. But failing wood components are not necessarily obvious or even visible. You might argue that you have commissioned a reserve study every three years, as the statute requires.2 Wouldn't the inspections that accompany such a study detect any similar problems?
Not necessarily. Remember, reserve study inspections are limited by that same statute to those areas of the complex which are visible and “accessible.” Maybe the condition which caused this railing to fail was isolated and visible but no one had looked closely enough. Or maybe not. Maybe it was in the supports that were enclosed or underneath the balcony and not readily visible. And, just maybe, there could be more conditions on the property just like this one—also hidden from view.
The moral of this unfortunate incident is crystal clear—older wood frame buildings should be inspected much more thoroughly than is presently required by state law. The consequences of not doing so could be more expensive than the typical community association budget could endure. And they could also be tragic.