California Balcony Inspections:
SB 721 & SB 326
The deadline to complete the first inspection is no later than January 1, 2025.
Tragedy Turned Into Law
The bill arose in response to the tragic deaths of six UC Berkeley students, that on June 16, 2015, shortly after midnight, a balcony on which a group of students had congregated, collapsed. The balcony was on the 5th floor of an apartment building. In June 2015, Mayor Tom Bates of Berkeley promised a wide-ranging investigation into the cause of the accident. The evidence is overwhelming that dry rot from improper construction and waterproofing caused the collapse, not the weight of the 13 students.
On September 17, 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 721 – “The Balcony Inspection Bill.” This law requires inspections of multi-family residential buildings with three or more units.
On August 30, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law SB 326. This law requires inspections of condominiums or multi-family housing controlled by residential homeowners’ associations (HOAs).
What properties are affected?
All multi-family residential buildings with three or more dwelling units in California that have “exterior elevated elements” that rely in whole or in substantial part on wood structural support must comply with this law.
Buildings containing three or more dwelling or sleeping units listed below:
Apartment houses, tenants in common and live/work units.
Dormitories, fraternities, sororities, convents, and monasteries.
Hotels, motels and vacation timeshare properties, boarding houses, and congregate residences (transient with more than 10 occupants and non-transient with more than 16 occupants).
Residential Assisted Living Facilities and Social Rehabilitation Residential Facilities.
SB 721 affects all residential buildings that have three or more multifamily dwelling units and SB 326 affects condominiums and other common interest developments. Buildings that are proposed for conversion to condominiums to be sold to the public after January 1, 2019, must be inspected prior to the first close of escrow.
Per California Civil Code Section 5551(a)
(1) “Associated waterproofing systems” include flashings, membranes, coatings, and sealants that protect the load-bearing components of exterior elevated elements from exposure to water.
(2) “Exterior elevated elements” mean the load-bearing components together with their associated waterproofing system.
(3) “Load-bearing components” means those components that extend beyond the exterior walls of the building to deliver structural loads to the building.
According to SB 721 and SB 326, amendments to the California Civil Code, these requirements apply to all exterior elevated elements, which are defined as:
Weather-exposed (i.e., not interior)
Extend beyond exterior walls
Located more than six feet above adjacent grade
Wood framed (not concrete or steel)
These are some examples of exterior elevated elements:
Balconies, decks, porches, stairways, walkways, and entry structures that extend beyond exterior walls of the building and that rely in whole or in substantial part on wood or wood-based products for structural support or stability; and
A walking surface that is elevated more than 6 feet above ground level.
Balconies designed for human occupancy or use.
The purpose of the law is to determine if the Exterior Elevated Elements and associated waterproofing components are in a generally safe condition and adequate working order to the extent that the safety or welfare of the public or the occupants are not endangered. The law requires inspection of associated waterproofing components that protect the load-bearing elements including sheet metal flashings, membranes, coatings, sealants, and features that may penetrate the membrane such as guardrail attachments, drains, and scuppers. Load-bearing components are those components that extend beyond the exterior walls of the building to deliver structural loads from the element to the building.
The main objectives include the following:
Identify wood-framed exterior elevated elements exhibiting significant deterioration due to wood-destroying organisms (fungal decay or insect infestation).
Ascertain whether the extent of deterioration poses a significant compromise to the load-carrying adequacy of structural components supporting exterior elevated elements.
Attempt to locate the water source if wood destroying organism infestation observed in wood framing.
Remediate deficient components.
The first safety inspection must be completed no later than January 1, 2025, and subsequently every nine years for SB 326 and every six years for SB 721 after the initial inspection.
What are Exterior Elevated Elements?
Exterior Elevated Elements are all elevated decks, balconies, landings, stairway systems, walkways, guardrails, handrails, or any parts thereof that are exposed to weather and with a walking surface more than 6 feet above grade/ground. This program applies only to wood-framed exterior elevated elements and not to concrete or steel elements.
What are load-bearing components?
Load-bearing components are components that extend beyond the exterior walls of the building to deliver structural loads to the building from decks, balconies, stairways, walkways, and their railings, that have a walking surface elevated more than six feet above ground level, that are designed for human occupancy or use, and that are supported in whole or in substantial part by wood or wood-based products.
What are associated waterproofing systems?
Associated waterproofing systems include flashings, membranes, coatings, and sealants that protect the load-bearing components of Exterior Elevated Elements from exposure to water.
I live in a multi-unit residential building with many balconies. Are the balconies in my building safe?
The balconies in your building were built in conformance with the Building Code requirements which were in effect at the time of original construction. The purpose and intent of the Building Code has always been life safety. To ascertain that the balcony supports have not been compromised over the years, the Exterior Elevated Elements Program requires that all balconies be periodically inspected.
l live in a recently constructed building. Are the balconies in my building required to be inspected?
Newly constructed residential buildings are exempt from the inspection certification requirements for a period of three years following the issuance of the Certificate of Occupancy.
I've never had this inspection before. When did this become a requirement?
On September 17, 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 721 and on August 30, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law SB 326.
When does the first inspection have to be completed?
The first inspection must be completed prior to January 1, 2025.
I have two years to get the first inspection done. What is the urgency?
Given the number of communities and Exterior Elevated Elements throughout the State, it will become increasingly difficult and expensive to schedule the required inspections and contractors to make any necessary repairs resulting from those inspections as the deadline approaches.
Do all Exterior Elevated Elements at each community need to be inspected?
For SB 326, the law requires inspection of a “statistically significant sample” to provide 95% confidence, with a margin of error no greater than plus or minus 5%. SB 721 only requires 15% of each Exterior Elevated Element type to be inspected. This means not all elements will be inspected and the number of elements inspected will vary based on the total number of elements at each community and the governing law. Elements are selected randomly using a validated random selection process.
What does an Exterior Elevated Element inspection entail?
Each selected element must be inspected to determine the overall condition of the load-bearing (structural) components. This includes support framing that extends beyond the exterior wall of the structure, walking surfaces, attachment points, hardware, railings, and the associated waterproofing systems. Associated waterproofing systems include flashings, membranes, coatings, and sealants that protect the load-bearing components of the Exterior Elevated Element from exposure to water.
Will an invasive or destructive investigation be needed?
If the framing elements are visible and accessible, a destructive investigation may not be necessary. If the framing is concealed, the licensed professional may need to cut openings in the soffits, other exterior finishes, and possibly interior finishes to expose framing elements and assess the observed conditions.
What can I do so an invasive or destructive investigation is not required next time this inspection is required?
Property owners may wish to consider having vents or access panels installed at the locations of the investigative openings created in the course of the initial inspection(s). Access panels or vents will enable future inspections to be conducted with relative ease. This work may require a permit.
Do all dwellings need to be inspected?
Only buildings containing three or more multifamily dwelling units need to be inspected.
My deck is only a few feet off of the ground. Does it still need to be inspected?
If the exterior elevated element is more than 6 feet above grade/ground, then an inspection will be required.
My exterior elevated element is covered and only has one side open to the outside. Does the inspection requirement still apply?
Yes, if the exterior elevated wood-framed deck, balcony, landing, stairway system, or walkway is exposed to the weather from any side, if the rain can fall upon the surface, or if the moisture can accumulate on the surface or at the joints or intersections.
This sounds more like a structural inspection. Why are you concerned with waterproofing details?
SB 326 and SB 721 require an evaluation of the associated waterproofing systems. Water intrusion is a leading factor in the degradation and damage of wood-based products, and this becomes significant when it affects the structural components of an Exterior Elevated Element. A key factor in the Berkeley collapse that precipitated the passage of the SB 326 and SB 721 legislation was unmitigated water intrusion and decay of the structural members of the deck. For context, that deck was merely five years old.
How do you complete the inspection?
The process includes a review of the Exterior Elevated Elements by type and construction. For open-framed elements, the inspection is visual and will include a moisture reading probe of the elements. Closed soffit elements require penetration of the soffit in each joist bay at both outboard and inboard locations so the concealed structural elements can be assessed. This is done using a high-definition borescope. The number of inspection portals is relevant to the size of the element. The basic inspection portal is approximately one inch wide, however, if the soffit is not vented, the option of a larger portal with venting is available.
What if the Board wishes to inspect all of the elements in the community? Does the law limit the number of Exterior Elevated Elements that can be inspected?
The law only sets the minimum number of Exterior Elevated Elements to be inspected, not the maximum. Both the local jurisdiction (by enacting an ordinance or other rule) and the association board (by enacting rules or bylaws) may impose greater requirements.
What are the required personnel certifications to complete the inspection?
This bill requires inspections to be completed by a licensed architect, licensed civil or structural engineer, a building contractor holding specified licenses, or an individual certified as a building inspector or building official.