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Balconies – with enjoyment comes responsibility

Balconies can provide outdoor areas to enhance living within a lot affected by an Owners Corporation or a company scheme. However, there are matters which arise in respect of balconies that owners should be aware of and some of these are set out in this article.

Maintenance

As with any element of a building, a balcony requires maintenance in order to be safe for users. Being exposed to the weather balconies suffer greater deterioration and wear and tear when compared to the interior of a lot.

A balcony floor may be made of concrete and cantilevered from the building. Balconies can also have a frame made of metal or timber with flooring attached. Floor should slope away from the building to allow for water run-off. There should be a waterproof membrane and tiling located on top of the membrane which is designed to protect the balcony by preventing water entry to the structure and ponding on the surface. Failure of the waterproofing can result in deterioration of the balcony structure. As this is not readily visible, the performance of the balcony may be compromised without any outward evidence.

Concrete cancer is a term given to the damage occurring when reinforcement within the slab rusts, reducing the structural integrity of the slab. The water entry can occur due to failure of the waterproofing membrane, tiling or ponding of water on the balcony.

For example, the Iluka building in Surfers Paradise was constructed in the 1970s and had to be demolished because it had become structurally unsound due to concrete cancer.  This is an extreme case of foreshortened building life and demonstrates the need for proper maintenance to protect a building.

The balustrade (the vertical section usually at the edge of the balcony) may be made of timber, metal, brick, concrete, glass or a composite construction such as glass sheeting supported by metal uprights. Balustrades are usually affixed to the concrete slab or frame, sometimes being bolted to the floor structure. Balustrades should be constructed to at least the minimum height required by the building regulations and there should not be openings which would allow objects to fall through. In an extreme case, a baby or small child could crawl through an opening of a balustrade.

Responsibility for Balcony Structures

A common misconception is balconies are the responsibility of the Owners Corporation and the owner is relieved of the obligation to maintain it. Unlike some other states, in Victoria, the structure of a building including balconies is not necessarily common property. It is an issue of survey determined by the plan of subdivision.

In a multilevel building, a plan of subdivision may adopt the interior face as the location boundary. If so, the slab or structural trusses will be common property and the responsibility of the Owners Corporation to repair and maintain. Unless the plan of subdivision indicates otherwise, the boundary of the lot is located at the unfinished surface and any waterproof membrane and tiles are within the owners’ lot.

An alternative is the horizontal boundary may be located on the median of the structure. The following diagram taken from the Subdivision (Registrar’s Requirements) Regulations 2011 illustrates the median line boundary.

Where one lot is located above another, and the boundary is located on the median, there will be no common property intervening. A slab or truss will be jointly owned by the two owners. A consequence is the relevant lot owners, and not the Owners Corporation, are responsible for the maintenance of the balcony.

If degradation of the core structure of the balcony arises from a failure of the waterproof membrane attached to the upper surface of the balcony or inadequate drainage, the Owners Corporation may consider the failure of the upper owner to maintain the membrane or ensure adequate drainage has led to the damage sustained. If an interior face boundary the damage caused to the common property would be a breach of the rules. For a median boundary, it is a matter between the two owners to resolve as there is no common property.

For stratum estates boundaries are set by dimension. For horizontal boundaries it was common the dimension accorded with the median. If this applies, balcony structures are treated in the same manner as Owners Corporations. If there is any doubt a land surveyor should be engaged to provide advice as to the location of the boundaries.

For a company share property it will depend upon the obligations set out in the Articles.

Balustrades

Responsibility for maintenance will be determined by the boundaries on the plan of subdivision. Where it is a median boundary, the owner is responsible to maintain the inner face and the Owners Corporation the outer section. If repairs are isolated to either side of the boundary the appropriate party undertakes the repair and meets the cost. If it is necessary to replace the balustrade the cost would normally be shared between the owner and the Owners Corporation.

For stratum estates it was common the vertical boundary corresponded to the outside face of the wall or balustrade. A land surveyor can verify this.

There have been reports of glass balustrades spontaneously fracturing and shards falling from buildings. The cause of this type of failure is thought to be excess amount of nickel sulphide in the glass which, with extreme changes in temperature, creates a pressure point in the glass leading to the failure. The heat soaking required to remove the nickel sulphide during manufacture was not undertaken or was not properly carried out. There have been reports some glass has been falsely certified by the manufacturer as having been properly treated thereby leading the builder and installer to believe these are compliant.

Use of Balconies

As set out in the section on Cladding, storage of materials on balconies can give rise to hazards such as fire.

Other hazards may also arise. Balconies should not be overloaded as a large number of people may exceed of the maximum design load of the balcony. If a balcony has weakened through age or deterioration, its capacity may have decreased.

People should not sit or lean on balustrades as there is a risk of falling over. People or objects leaning on balustrade may exceed the lateral strength leading to failure.

Water ponding on a balcony can lead to damage of the structure particularly if the membrane has deteriorated or not installed. The effect of water ponding on a balcony is exacerbated if there is inadequate fall away from the building and/or drainage is blocked.  Any drainage points on a balcony should be cleaned regularly to ensure adequate water flow. Pot plants should not be overwatered and should have saucers to trap any overflow.  These should be emptied regularly.

Planter boxes or the like should be properly tanked and drained to ensure water cannot escape and damage the structure on which the planter box is located.

Outdoor furniture should be removed when not in use, particularly if windy conditions are forecast. It is possible that furniture may be lifted from the balcony and cause damage to common property and/or chattels owned by the Owners Corporation or other persons or possibly personal injury.

Barbecues should be located at least 500 mm from any wall, ignition source or flammable material. Regular cleaning should be undertaken to prevent flaring. Gas bottles and connections should be regularly checked to ensure there is no leakage. Electric barbecues should be inspected by a suitably qualified electrician. Barbecue should not be left out in the weather as this may allow water to enter which could lead to a short circuit with the possibility of fire or injury.

Balconies should not be used for storage of goods and other materials. Generally, sprinklers are not required to be installed on balconies. Cardboard, furniture and cushions can provide fuel compounding the effect of a fire. This can allow flames to enter a habitable area, particularly if the wall separating the balcony and interior is not fire rated or if the fire rating has been compromised even if only by a door being left open.

It is strongly recommended that each balcony has a fire extinguisher. In the event of a small fire this may be sufficient to prevent it spreading further.

For smokers there should be heavy, high sided ashtrays which are made from materials such as glass or enamel so that cigarette butts cannot burn through the ashtray igniting furniture or other chattels on the balcony. Cigarettes should be fully extinguished to ensure there is no possibility of these being an ignition source.

Inspection of Balconies

Owners should undertake regular inspection of balconies within lot boundaries to ensure safety. This is particularly important as over time the performance of the balcony may degrade.

Even where the balcony slab is common property, the most likely cause of damage and deterioration is leaking membranes or tiles within an owners’ lot. Owners should ensure that the membranes and drains of the balcony are functioning properly to prevent damage to the common property.

Balustrades should also be inspected. For concrete balustrades the matters set out above should be referred to. For brick balustrades any bowing is a matter of concern as it may indicate weakening. Similarly, degraded mortar should be remedied to arrest and remedy any weakening. Metal balustrades or any metal components should be inspected for rust or other discolouration. When metal such as wrought iron is used regular maintenance including painting should be undertaken to reduce deterioration. Any movement of the balustrade may point to a weakening, creating a danger and this should be attended to as a matter of urgency.

Where balustrades are common property, such as the boundary being the interior face, an Owners Corporation may consider engaging an engineer or building consultant to undertake an inspection and provide a report as to the condition. Any member who observes a matter of concern should advise the Owners Corporation in order that it may be attended to.

If an Owners Corporation considers it appropriate to undertake inspection of balconies within lot boundaries, this would be characterised as being a service to members and require approval by special resolution.

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