Construction Crime

Berkeley Balcony Disaster

Six young people are dead and seven more are in hospital, some with  injuries described as “life-changing”.

The balcony these kids were standing on didn’t collapse because of anything they did but because it was rotten and yet the victims continue to be blamed for their own deaths and their own injuries, though there is no evidence to support such prejudice.  Even the New York Times ran an article about drunken Irish students on J1 visas, resulting in a storm of criticism and a grudging apology from the paper.

Some people on Twitter tried to claim that the deaths and injuries were due to kids crowding the balcony and even, as one individual asserted, falling over the edge.

For the avoidance of all doubt, here are the facts: the balcony collapsed.  Nobody fell over anything.

The balcony collapsed because it was rotten.  The balcony collapsed because it was built with timber that rotted — a most perplexing thing in an 8-year-old building in a city afflicted with drought.

The balcony collapsed because the joists projecting from the wall simply crumbled under the weight of the people standing above, as the photographs show. The joists fell apart like damp dust.

berkeley balcony

Now, some people have suggested that the balcony was therefore overloaded, and I’ll deal with that presently, but first, I have to point out that since the balcony was plainly rotten, the builder has no defence.  He constructed a new building that, within eight years, killed six young people and catastrophically injured another seven.  There’s no escaping that fact.

As for this talk of overloading, let’s dispose of it immediately.

What is overloading?  Simple. It’s when a structure carries more load than it was designed to support.

How much load should a balcony be designed to support?

Simple. It’s as many people as the balcony can physically fit, plus the same again, just to be on the safe side.

That’s responsible design.

The engineer should have designed, and the builder should have constructed, a balcony that could hold not thirteen, not fifteen, not even twenty, but twice that many, just in case the circumstances arose.

Why?  Because not to do so might lead to the deaths of people and because it would be very cheap to make sure nobody died.

The kids went out on the balcony because they relied on the builder to construct a safe building. The ordinary citizen is entitled to rely on the expertise of a professional such as a builder or a structural engineer.  There is no responsibility on a 21-year-old student to usurp the expertise of professionals and second-guess the loadbearing capacity of a balcony or anything else.

And yet, this is all academic since the issue isn’t even the original strength of the structural members used to construct the balcony.  This is about the manner in which those components deteriorated.

It’s not  that the joists weren’t strong enough on the day they were fitted.  It’s that they rotted in less than eight years, in a dry climate.

These kids who lost their lives didn’t die because they were irresponsible or because they were drunk.

They died because they placed their faith in professionals, as we all do in the course of our daily lives. Unfortunately, the professionals failed these kids badly.

These deaths were foreseeable, and somebody should do time in jail for it.