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Unsafe Decks Duck Building Code Requirements

Most local building codes follow the International Building Code, which requires that decks, porches, and balconies be able to support a live load of 40 pounds per square foot in addition to the “dead load” that the structure must bear. The dead load is the weight of the structure itself.

Despite these requirements, Frank Woeste, structural engineer and author of the Manual for the Inspection of Residential Wood Decks and Balconies, maintains that most decks and porches in the United States cannot support the weight load that building codes say they should support. In fact, he states that not one of the authors who conducted research for the manual found a single deck or porch that was completely code compliant.

Revisiting the Deadliest Porch Collapse in U.S. History

In 2003, a wooden multilevel porch attached to an apartment building in Chicago collapsed, killing 13 people and seriously injuring 57 others. The injured victims and surviving members of those killed sued the City of Chicago in addition to the building owner. In the suit, the victims claimed that the City did not do its job in inspecting properties and ensuring that they were safe for use, and that the property owner breached building regulations.

The media and building owner pinned the blame for the catastrophe on overcrowding. However, in a subsequent investigation, it was determined that poor construction, and not overcrowding, ultimately caused the collapse. Specifically, the balcony jutted out eleven feet from the building, which is one foot further than permitted by city codes, and had an area of 231 square feet, which is 81 square feet larger than permitted. The porch also had inadequate supports, was floored with undersized lengths of wood, and was attached to the walls with screws that were too short.

The fatal disaster also caused the City to conduct an after-the-fact inspection of 700 Chicago decks and porches, which resulted in citations for at least 545 structures, and outright condemnation of 70 others.

Construction & Design Defect Expert Witness

Unfortunately, designers, builders, municipalities, and property owners too often fail to test the strength and reliability of decks, porches, and balconies. If you need an expert to advise you or appear as a witness in a case involving building code compliance, please contact Engineering Expert Witness for a free initial consultation. Pierre Handl, P.E. evaluates disasters in California and nationwide to identify their cause and determine whether design or construction played a role in the catastrophe.

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