Iowa City eyes balconies


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The balcony collapse in Berkeley, California, on June 16, which killed six people and injured seven others, has drawn attention to the safety of Iowa City’s many balconies.

“It does show the importance of periodical inspections,” said Tim Hennes, an Iowa City senior building inspector.

Every rented complex in the city goes through a visual inspection every two years in order to determine the safety of the structure. With more than 18,000 rented units in Iowa City, there are more than 9,000 inspections a year, he said.

Hennes said all commercial structures must have a licensed architect who follows standard code.

He said owner-occupied residences are not inspected as are rented ones, but inspections are instead left to the owner of the property. These properties only receive an official inspection when they are sold.

There are several steps in the process of inspecting balconies, which is similar for both apartment buildings and houses, said Stan Laverman, a senior Iowa City housing inspector.

“You don’t want to be neglectful in your job,” he said. “There’s a lot of comfort in knowing that I’ve personally inspected that building.”

Laverman said the visual check includes applying pressure to the guardrails to make sure they can withstand a large level of force, checking how far boards holding the balcony platform go into the building, and a visual check of the balcony’s overall condition.

Visual inspection might have not mattered much in the case of the balcony in Berkeley, Hennes said.

“If there’s severe dry rot that’s not visible on the exterior, it could be impossible to notice,” he said.

Authorities in Berkeley have found that the cause of the collapse was because of severe dry rot in the wooden beams protruding from the building that “supported” the balcony. Prosecutors have opened a criminal probe in the matter.

In Iowa City, all inspections are based on the International Building Code, which is used nationwide and updated every three years, said John Yapp, the Iowa City development services coordinator. As does Iowa City, Berkeley uses the international code.

Yapp stressed that it is important for property owners to check the quality of their balconies and not wait for city inspections.

“We encourage property owners to periodically inspect their property for any damage or anything not up to code,” he said. “Balconies are very similar to bridges; if the surface they are connected to is eroded or unstable, then it could collapse regardless of how well-built the bridge is.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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