Before embarking on a real estate hunt, most prospective buyers craft lists. The “must have” list (square footage, operational plumbing, windows), the “would love list” (lots of natural light, Jacuzzi bathtub, doorman) and then the “probably just a dream” list (heated bathroom floors, private elevator, silent neighbors).
Somewhere on these lists fall balconies and terraces. Both are at a premium in major urban areas like New York City or Chicago, but New Jerseyans love looking out over the Hudson River as well from their perch on high. Those residents in Jersey City or Edgewater lucky enough or wealthy enough—to have a balcony or terrace likely don’t think about the complex structure behind (or rather, under) the square footage that houses their potted plants, lounge chairs and Weber grills. Pleasant and valuable as they are, these small squares of real estate come with their own set of maintenance and safety concerns.
Part of the Whole
It doesn’t take long to find news reports of tragic balcony and terrace accidents. In New York City in 2013, 35-year-old Jennifer Rosoff was killed when the railing on her 16th floor balcony buckled. In Chicago in 2003, a balcony collapsed during a party, killing 13 people and injuring over 50 more. The accident still stands as the deadliest porch collapse in the United States. These and numerous other tragedies are not meant to scare residents away from enjoying their outdoor space, but they do highlight the importance of regular maintenance and inspections of balconies and terrace areas, as well as the responsible use and upkeep of them by their owners. Even the most well-intentioned building manager may not know how to spot a problem and have it properly diagnosed and remedied—so we turned to some experts and history to help.
Balconies and terraces are built just like buildings (which is to say, out of a mix of steel, concrete and wood) and come in essentially three different construction styles. A cantilevered balcony protrudes directly from the face of a building, seeming to float with no visible supports. Cantilevered balconies are planned and installed as part of a building’s larger design—they can't be added on after construction is finished. By contrast, a hung balcony consists of a large plate or slab connected to the building, supported and stabilized from above by stainless steel cables. Finally, a stacked balcony (very common in Chicago, for example) requires the least predesign. Stacked balconies are a separate structure from the building, and are supported using vertical pillars sunk into the ground to support the weight of the balcony.
The most common problem affecting balconies and terraces is owner failure. These outdoor spaces can be installed properly, woven into the building structure effectively and efficiently, but they need to be maintained and kept up in order to remain safe. In Berkeley, California in 2015, six people were killed when the balcony they were standing on had “decayed to the point of severe dry rot,” as reported by CNN. According to the report, “A memorandum from inspectors at the Berkeley Building and Safety Division says that the deck's severed joist ends—horizontal, parallel beams that support a ceiling or floor—looked 'extensively rotted' where the structure had ripped from the wall.”