High anxiety – how truly safe is your balcony?

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How safe is your balcony? That little bit of the outdoors leading from your lounge room, could be an accident waiting to happen.

In 2017 two people died and 17 were injured when a timber balcony collapsed under the weight of approximately 30 people during a party at a house in Doncaster East, Melbourne.

In 2010, after more than a dozen teenagers were injured when one came down under the weight of partygoers in Lane Cove in Sydney, experts claimed there were 8000 balconies across Australia that were in danger of collapse from overloading.

Now, those two incidents featured timber balconies, but we’ve all seen the actual cracks in the Opal building and the growing cracks in the building regulation system, and you have to wonder if we are right to assume that your block’s balcony can hold as much weight as you can cram on to it.

In a modern building, you might reasonably assume that the engineer and architect incorporated a huge margin of error for the load your balcony slab might have to take … just like they did for the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City where two high level walkways collapsed, killing 114 people and injuring 260 in 1981.

The Opal Tower designers would also have firmly believed that the supporting walls would easily stand up to the expected strain.

Now think about your balcony next New Year’s Eve, with 30 to 50 people squeezed between your heavy concrete planters, bouncing up and down to Men At Work or Flume as they await the arrival of 2020.

More than 6000 people a year are injured due to the structural failure of balconies and decks in the USA. Google ‘condo balcony collapse’ if you’re not convinced.

Who defines “overloading”, asks Tim McKibbin, CEO of the Real Estate Institute of NSW (REINSW). And why is there no ‘maximum occupancy’ number as there is for everything from lifts to buses or boats.

Bearing in mind the increasing reports of sub-standard building across the apartment industry in Australia, Tim wonders how long it will be before a party on a high-rise balcony ends in a similar, but potentially greater disaster.

And he doesn’t think his members should be responsible for deciding what’s safe and what isn’t.

“Real Estate agents are required to make determinations about the structural integrity of balconies, but they are not structural engineers,” he said in a letter to Flat Chat. “The safety standard of swimming pool fencing has to be assessed by a licensed and qualified person … balconies do not.”

Good point.  If you pushed a planter box up to the railing around your swimming pool, council inspectors would be on to you in a flash. You have just reduced the effective height of the fence, rendering the pool unsafe.

But what if that’s on your balcony?  Some kids are like foreign tourists at Uluru – they just have to climb. But there’s no council inspectors here so that’s OK … isn’t it?

Talking of height, some older buildings’ balcony balustrades are so low they present more of a trip threat than a climbing concern.  And they can stay that way unless there’s work done on the balcony or the whole building needs planning permission for an upgrade.

So what can you do?  Declare your balcony a “no-go” zone? Restrict parties to inside only.

No, but you could try to find out what the maximum load capacity for your balcony is. Even better, ask your committee to do it, since it affects everyone.

If your balcony balustrades are less than a metre high, ask the strata committee if they’re waiting to be ordered to raise them … or for an accident to happen?

And move those planter boxes away from the edge. Now that our pools and windows are child-proofed, balconies will rightly be the new front line in safety.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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