Why We Need a Balcony Project
Towers Topics Newsletter June 2016
By Asta Kenney, Ad Hoc Balcony Committee
If you walk around our community and take a careful look at the balconies, you’ll see they need work. The concrete is often chipped, cracked and/or shows rust-stains; coverings are coming lose from the decks; many baseplates (which anchor the railings to the decks) are rusted and some seem about to become detached; rust is evident on numerous railings; some rails that support divider panels are bent out of shape—and more. Not to mention cracked glass panels….
When we consider that our balconies are about 55 years old and exposed to the elements 24/7, this deterioration is hardly surprising. Other apartment buildings have the same problems—they are normal for structures of this age. Moreover, we haven’t had a regular inspection and maintenance program; most of our balconies have had little or no significant concrete repair; and it has been almost 30 years since the railings got a thorough overhaul.
The visible damage is only the tip of the iceberg. Balcony deterioration is often invisible, so a deck that looks perfect may actually be in serious need of repair. Past experience at The Towers has shown that some balconies apparently free of deterioration actually had hidden rust, and others with surfaces covered with tile, wood or carpet had concrete break-up underneath.
It was considerations such as these that led the Board to commission two assessments of the condition of our balconies.
Engineering Technical Consultants, Inc. (ETC) inspected about 300 of our 400+ balconies in 2014 and concluded that they were in “fair to poor” condition. Among their findings were:
• A majority of balconies showed concrete deterioration, such as cracks, crumbling and delamination, probably due to water infiltrating the slab, chunks of loosened concrete at balcony edges that could fall, and exposed metal reinforcing bars that enabled rust to extend into the concrete slab;
• Rust stains on numerous balcony ceilings suggested moisture penetration;
• Many balconies with tile, carpet or brick coverings exhibited cracks, loose concrete, exposed steel bar ends or other damage;
• All the railings exhibited rust, particularly on the baseplates (where the posts attach to the deck), and some posts were rusted through at the base, rendering them potentially unsafe.
Tadjer Cohen Edelson Associates, Inc. (TCE) conducted a peer review of ETC’s assessment the following year (2015.) TCE looked at 39 balconies and generally confirmed ETC’s findings, but disturbingly, found larger areas of concrete in need of repair—quite likely due to ongoing deterioration in the intervening year.
So why should all of this be cause for concern?
Personal Safety and Protection of Property: The consequences of a deteriorated balcony or railing are disastrous. A balcony cave-in, falling concrete or a railing failure could cause untold damage to persons or property, including serious injury or death. Because the condo association is responsible for ensuring that our balconies are sound, it would bear the liability in such a case.
Maintaining the Integrity of our Building: Keeping our balconies in good condition is important for the entire building. For example, moisture seeping from the balconies can do serious damage to the walls, and rust on the metal bars inside the concrete decks can spread into the building itself, damaging interior floors and ceilings and undermining its structural integrity.
Reducing our Exposure to Risk: Prudent management of our infrastructure calls for prompt action:
• Knowing that there are widespread problems with the balconies, the Board must act promptly to avoid accidents and risks to personal safety on the balconies — all the balconies. The entire association would be exposed to serious legal liability in the event of an accident resulting from a failed balcony. Indeed, we could potentially find ourselves in a position where our insurance is void.
• Our balconies do not meet current D.C. Code which requires more stringent safety measures than we currently have in place. While we are “grandfathered” in because of the age of our structure, there is always a risk that DC could at some point require us to become compliant, so considering options that bring us into compliance should be on the table.
A balcony repair project is never popular in a community. It’s noisy, dirty, expensive and unpleasant. But, like putting a new roof on a house, it’s something that owners with balconies have to face. And a freshly repaired balcony is so much more enjoyable than an old one!
This time around, thanks to technological advancements, we have an opportunity to set up our balconies for decades to come. Two key technologies we could select are:
• Sealing: Once a concrete deck is sound, it is sealed with a water-proof substance and then coated. With minor maintenance, this process can protect a concrete deck for as long as the building stands.
• Aluminum railings: Railings are now generally made of coated aluminum which doesn’t rust, has a long life and requires little maintenance.
While these technologies do cost money, the additional costs of introducing them aren’t much more than making repairs the traditional way—and maintenance and repair costs afterwards are significantly reduced.
We should also think about turning the page and introducing a regular balcony inspection and maintenance program, so any problems are identified and fixed early on and we avoid unexpected major repairs.
Since February, an Ad Hoc Balcony Committee, working with management and outside experts, has been looking into the problems with our balconies and considering options to extend their life and make them safe and beautiful again. It will make its recommendations to the Board in July.