Lax and unspecified regulations put far too many home owners at risk due to faulty materials and work on their balconies.

When timber framed balconies form part of a house, you would rightly assume that the builder, the designer and the building surveyor insisted on durable materials being used in its construction and for its linings. You would also assume that the detailing for balconies and balustrades would ensure that water could not penetrate through the linings or at the junctions of the balcony posts and rails with walls, columns and posts of the house.

Unfortunately that is not the case for perhaps the majority of balconies, including many built today, particularly when they are built of lightweight materials to save money. That means that many will one day become dangerous and fail – the majority prior to what is considered a reasonable life expectancy (a minimum of 20 years by the National Association of Forest Industries [NAFI] for external structures such as timber decks and lightweight balconies.)

This is not acceptable. Peoples’ lives are at stake, and something needs to be done about it before deaths occur. There have been several collapses already.

There are ways to ensure that balconies will not become dangerous prematurely. More expensive reinforced concrete can be used, and provided the mesh and reinforcement have sufficient cover, these usually last over 40 years if the drainage and detailing is thought out properly, particularly near the coast.

Even with timber framing, longevity can be increased substantially if the timber framing is lined with heavy compressed fibre cement board, taking care to seal the joints adequately. And just in case of minor leaks which can cause moisture build-up, the timbers could the higher rated H5 or H6 CCA treated pine (or ACQ treated pine) with the soffit ventilated.

Similarly for steel framed balconies and elevated decks, the steel can be a problem particularly in marine environments.

Unfortunately not many balconies are made of longer lasting (and safer) alternatives because they cost more and involve heavy lifting and stronger supports. So designers and builders adopt lighter-weight options, and that’s when we can get a host of associated problems, including:

  • Minor movements (wind heat, structural, shrinkage, creep) opening up poorly done joint seals causing moisture build-up in the enclosed decks/balconies and possible water atop timber members
  • Dust from adjacent building sites fouling adherence of membranes to surfaces (and membrane to membrane)
  • Short-changing of the number of membrane coats/required preparation procedures for each membrane layer
  • Excessive flexure of floor linings due to excessive joist spacing
  • Inadequate floor sheeting (strength/moisture resistance) atop floor joists
  • Ceramic tiling glue bedding short-changing/type/grossly edge jointing.

And for timber decks (elevated or not):

  • Inadequate top edge (and end) protection of LOSP treated pine floor joists
  • Non-durable floor joists or excessive spacings for the boards chosen
  • Inferior floor boards that when weathered a little can crack.

That is why great care is required when constructing timber decks and timber framed balconies. The National Construction Code could (but does not) insist on certain tried and proven materials being used. The NCC is performance-based, and so together with specifications sadly lacking in detailed workmanship clauses, it still allows insufficient care by builders and dusty site conditions to be factors that affect the longevity of many balconies and decks.

The VBA (previously the Building Commission) has recently published several useful documents regarding balconies (and water-proofing of same), balustrades and decks, all of which are an improvement on their predecessor’s document What You Need to Know about Maintenance of Balconies.

But the VBA documents still place the onus on home owners to have sufficient inspections carried out to ensure the soundness of their balcony when many such consultants (including those recommended) lack the endeavour and knowledge to be called expert. This is particularly true when it comes to the vital components of water-proofing, detailing and drainage.

Building consultants don’t have a thorough definition of defect, even though it is defects that they look for. And their large list of disclaimers often preclude their gaining sufficient access to get to the seat of many a problem. This dumbs them down on vital issues, many of them structural.

There is also nothing in the document about the full responsibility being on each of the registered building practitioners – the designers, builders, building surveyors, or certifying building inspectors – to ensure that the fine points of constructing balconies and decks are actually adhered to so that they will last a reasonable lifetime and not become unsafe prematurely.

Instead, there is just advice to the extent that these practitioners must comply with the regulations, codes, standards and the Building Code of Australia, where it is not specifically stated that particleboard, oregon and hardwood (for instance) must not be used externally, even in closed balconies.

Many home owners do not believe that their balconies could possibly become unsafe in a short space of time. After all, they’re new…and approved.

The aforementioned guide merely noted that little thought was given to balcony timbers in the 1980s, when non-durable oregon and hardwood were used. There is no mention in the guide or subsequent VBA publications that particleboard flooring was used under ceramic tiled floors of thousands of balconies in Victoria, and many of these are going to fail prematurely, often without warning, some with catastrophic results.

There seems to have been orders from above that there must not be any mention of potential negligence of any of the registered building practitioners involved in the design and construction of balconies and decks in relation to deaths or serious accidents that might occur because of the lack of the necessary measures being taken. Instead there was and still is only the inference that owners must be vigilant and maintain their balconies and decks regularly!

The previous authority’s hidden agenda to protect business cunningly shifts the blame from enterprise to building consumers. The VBA has not altered this despite substantially improving their brochures on the subject.

I’ve seen 4.5-millimetre fibre cement sheeting used on one upper storey of 16 identical units where one of the owners fell through that sheeting onto the deck below. Amazingly, he was just very badly bruised.

Barely 15 years ago, a builder admitted in Building Product News that he had been inundated with calls by his home owner clients regarding problems associated with his particleboard-lined balconies in an advertisement for a new product, Scyon.

Quite recently there have been balcony collapses seriously injuring people. Do our governments require fatalities before they will act?

Many unsafe balconies still exist and some cannot be inspected adequately without partial removal of the balcony linings.

Two of my clients recently cut open their tiled balconies revealing severe rot in concealed oregon beams at just six years old. Codes obviously did not prevent the builder from using oregon.

There is so much reliance on waterproof membranes, but these do fail. One manufacturer admits to a 1.6 per cent failure rate even when using its own installers inside houses.

Our National Construction Code permits specifiers to use their expert judgement as regards performance (alternative) solutions. That’s why particleboard was used for decades, and why H3 LOSP treated pine is rarely installed as specified.

Only one of six VBA publications states that particleboard must not be used, but there is no AS Code mentioned to back this up. Many building practitioners will not have read it.

With so much dust on building estates, it is very difficult to keep surfaces dust-free as required by the manufacturers, yet there is nary a mention of this in any publication.

I have yet to see both proper top edge protection and end treatment for any of well over 150 decks I have inspected where LOSP treated pine floor joists were installed. All treatments were inadequate. Governments need to act to ensure that tragedies associated with balconies and decks cannot occur.

Detailing, drainage and workmanship associated with tiled balconies are sometimes so bad that water enters under the ceramic tiles and starts causing serious damage even during the warranty period.

The latest big worry is balustrades made of imported exploding toughened glass used in multi-storey buildings, which explode because of nickel sulphide impurities in the poor quality products made in countries where codes are obviously inadequate. It happened in Melbourne in 1962 in the ICI glazed tower, and our codes were altered to avoid this happening again.

But imported glass is cheaper and we permit this importation without checking the codes for its manufacture or testing the products. We obviously haven’t learnt very much at all.

Electrical cables and flammable cladding are also in the news for the very same reasons.

When will our governments show that they really care about our safety?