On June 16, six people were killed near San Francisco when an apartment balcony they were gathered on collapsed. The collapse caused them to fall four stories to a sidewalk below. Four were killed instantly, and two more died at the hospital from their injuries. Seven more people were injured.

The tragedy was national news in the United States and Ireland. Five of the six killed were visiting from Ireland as part of a work-study abroad program. One was an American from California.

Surprisingly, the apartment building involved was not old or apparently unsafe. It was finished in 2007 and was part of a pricey apartment complex near the Berkeley University campus.

While no final conclusions can be drawn yet, early suspicions about the balcony collapse point to dry rot. The balcony was held in place by wooden beams which apparently cracked where the balcony joined the building. This allowed the balcony to break free and fall, dumping the occupants to the ground below.

A poorly sealed building can allow water intrusion, which can quickly eat away at wood joists and make them lose their strength. While many people understand that structures decay over a period of decades, dry rot can actually destroy structural integrity within a few years of construction. Further investigation will reveal whether this occurred in the relatively new building in Berkeley.

Rot is a particular concern here in Florida. We have a hot, humid climate with frequent rainfall, and it is particularly unforgiving to structures supported by wood. Even concrete block construction is vulnerable in some ways, because studs and roof trusses are usually wooden even when a building’s exterior walls are not. Many Florida homes also have wooden balconies or decks which allow occupants to eat or relax outdoors.

The collapse of a balcony on a relatively new building points out a little-known safety issue. While apartments and other buildings must comply with codes when they are built, there is no specific requirement that they be inspected to ensure safety afterward.

In other words, owners of rental properties in Florida have no specific duty to look over their buildings for developing decay or defects. Although they are generally required by law to provide safe buildings to their tenants, there is no requirement that they inspect them on a particular schedule. Therefore, many apartments or rented commercial buildings may not be inspected for years after they are originally built. Some may never be inspected at all after original construction is complete.

The one good thing that may come from this tragedy is greater awareness about maintaining safe structures. Let’s hope landlords everywhere heed the wake-up call and make sure the places they lease are safe for their tenants.

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