By Ann Mariano
The Washington Post
The view from the balcony on a crisp autumn morning is one pleasure of high-rise living. But a growing number of Washington area residents can’t enjoy these vistas because their balconies are unsafe.
Engineers and property managers report that in addition to normal aging, poor construction and upkeep have led to the deterioration of numerous properties.
And there is more bad news. Thomas Downey, a Northern Virginia structural engineer, predicts a “gradual increase in the number of problems as buildings erected in the 1950s and ’60s continue to age.” In some cases builders did not use durable materials and owners did not maintain buildings well.
“The main concern is long-term weakening,” Downey said. “Sometimes concrete fragments fall off and railings get loose.”
In the most recent and dramatic example of balcony problems, owners of 957 condominiums at Skyline Plaza in Fairfax County have sued their management company for $6 million in punitive damages, plus a refund of all money paid to the company during the 13 years it managed the development.
The unit owners estimate they paid the firm, Charles E. Smith Management Inc., from $80,000 to $110,000 annually, or up to $1.43 million over 13 years, according to court documents. The suit also alleges that the company “was involved in unavoidable conflicts of interest” because other firms in the “Charles E. Smith family of companies” were the developers of the Skyline condominiums.
The Skyline condominium owners allege that Smith knew about the defects but did not tell the homeowners, in order to avoid” creating millions of dollars in liabilities” the developer would have to pay, said James C. Brincefield Jr., the owners’ attorney.
Structural defects resulted because balconies were not build properly or in accordance with building codes or construction specifications, and residents were never told about these deficiencies, the suit said. The managers also did not conduct proper inspections or failed to spot defects, the suit claimed.
Property owners also missed opportunities to get problems corrected because the management firm did not report structural defects during the period after construction when developer warranties would have covered repair costs, the suit said.
During construction of Skyline Plaza, which started in 1972, one of the two high-rise buildings collapsed, killing 14 workers and injuring 34 others. After work resumed in July 1974 and was completed in 1977, the Smith management firm was hired.
Balcony repairs are underway at Skyline, creating “a period of extreme disruption and uncertainty because of the noise and dislocation,” said Richard E. Morrison, former condominium association president and the group’s liaison to its attorney. “There’s no telling how much more damage has not been discovered yet.”
“There is genuine concern that this could affect the profitability of the units” and cause an increase in the owners’ monthly fees, Morrison said.
Scott Sterling, a vice president and attorney with the Smith company, said: “Since the case is in court I think we’ll refrain from commenting.”
About 525 balconies at Skyline Plaza are being repaired, at a cost of about $1.7 million, according to a construction official. Work on the next phase is expected to start in late 1994 or early 1995.
Over the past year and a half sales prices have ranged from $59,950 to $68,000 for efficiency apartments and from $147,500 to $174,000 for three bedroom units, said Dale Wrodleski of Weichert Realty.
“Balconies have been a major issue with condos for many years,” said Lisa Levine, executive director of the Community Associations Institute here. She said the institute offers condominium owners and managers educational programs on maintenance and replacement of balconies.
Balconies have been built incorrectly for years, according to Art Highband, a local property manager, and other experts. Local government requirements and inspection policies also vary widely among area jurisdictions, Highband said.
Fairfax County requires balconies to be made of reinforced concrete and says owners must maintain them to prevent deterioration, said Sophie Zager, the county’s director of inspection services. But Fairfax officials do not inspect balconies after a building has been occupied. If an owner decides to repair a balcony, the plans must be submitted to the county, but officials do not inspect the work, Zager said.
In Prince George’s County, where 10 people were injured when a balcony on a Bladensburg apartment building collapsed last year, multifamily property are inspected every two years, said Evelyn Wise, chief of the county’s property standards division. When problems are found, owners must make repairs and get county approval of the work.
Michael Conner, chief fire marshal with Alexandria’s Code Enforcement Bureau, said the city has encountered some balcony problems because of “a very natural aging process.” Under city law, apartment buildings with more than five units must be inspected annually by city officials, and structural problems must be corrected, he said.
In balcony construction, the reinforcing steel of the balcony floor should be covered with three-fourths of an inch of concrete, said Joseph Shuffleton, a structural engineer and president of Engineering Technical Consultants in Northern Virginia.
Because sometimes the slab is only one-fourth of an inch thick, allowing water into the concrete, causing rust and cracks. If owners cover the balcony floor with indoor-outdoor carpeting, as many do, the balcony can deteriorate because water is trapped on top of the concrete, he said.
Repairing a balcony can cost from $20 to $30 per square foot, Shuffleton said, making the repair of a typical six by 12 foot balcony cost more than $2,000.
Two decades ago, builders and property owners thought balconies needed little maintenance, Highband said. “We know now that the construction techniques were not very good and that we didn’t understand reactions between components of balconies,” he said.