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Is It Safe To Sit On My Balcony?

I’m surrounded by a sea of balconies stacked up and down the facades of nearby white-bricked buildings.  But no one’s ever on them – not even any would-be Juliets.  You can’t barbeque on them because if everyone lit up at the same time the building would go up in smoke.  You can’t hang out on them because strangers stare up from the street.

“It’s a dirty secret,” one architect said.  “Buyers will pay more for apartments with balconies so builders attach them because they don’t really cost anything.” They’re not counted against their square footage allotment so they’re almost like free space, he explained.

Only now, after a man tragically fell to his death from a 24th floor balcony at 330 East 39th Street in Manhattan on March 14th,everyone wants to know if it’s safe to go out on the balcony they never set foot on before, and the City has stepped into high gear to try and find out. inspecting 530 buildings so far.

Only it’s not clear what the problem is, or how wide it spreads.

“It’s a maintenance issue,” said Howard Zimmerman, an architect whose firm has inspected more than 4,000 balconies since the incident at the request of building owners. “Concrete balconies are like sponges that suck up water. Railings may have been screwed in tightly, but over forty years and more they become loose, from naturally occurring contraction and expansion.”

“The scope of the City’s action based on one incident seems unprecedented,” noted Stephen Varone, President of Rand Engineering.  You can’t really tell if the investigation is focused on a design defect or on buildings of a certain vintage.”

According to Mr. Varone, if there’s a design defect odds are it goes back to the original architect, who now may be difficult or impossible to find.  So buildings with potential balcony problems are trying to find new firms that will furnish statements attesting that the balconies are safe.  But providing such a seal of approval can expose the new firm to potential liability for what the old firm did, which is why he expects that few wil be willing to take on that burden.

“I think I once lived in that building,” recalled Paul Millman, Principal of Superstructures, referring to the 42-story apartment tower at Broadway and 70th Street, whose balconies were sealed off by the City.  “Balconies in buildings of that era, the 60s and 70s, were often constructed of aluminum and concrete, which tend to corrode quickly.”

Daniel Wollman, CEO of Gumley Haft, which manages 80 buildings throughout the City, said probably about twenty-five percent of them have balconies, but none have taken any action as a result of the recent incident. “Building staff inspect the balconies at least several times a year when they’re cleaning the drains,” he said.

Not only the cause but also  the scope of the problem is yet to be determmied.  Although The NY Times reported that about 800 building owners had failed to file Local Law 11 inspection reports, as required every five years, the engineers I spoke with all said that’s like comparing apples and oranges because there is not necessarily any correlation between failure to file such reports and failing balconies.

Local Law 11 requires building owners to conduct a façade inspection of their properties every five years. Basically, the purpose of these inspections is to see if anything is falling off, or about to fall off, the building.

Engineers generally conduct these inspections from a scaffold using binoculars to hone in closer. But viewing balconies from afar, it’s virtually impossible  to spot defective railings or other design defects or even some of the maintenance issues the engineers I contacted agreed.

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