Company that built Library Gardens in Berkeley paid $3m to settle case last year

Segue Construction faced allegations over balconies and windows in another scheme

The company that built the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, where six Irish students died on Tuesday when a fourth-floor balcony collapsed, paid $3 million last year to settle a case over alleged defects in another apartment scheme.

Court records seen by The Irish Times show Segue Construction, which built Library Gardens in 2007, paid $3 million (€2.6m) to settle a legal action alleging water damage on balconies and windows at another complex.

The news came amid intense scrutiny of possible structural or building defects in the balcony that collapsed early on Tuesday, killing the six students and injuring seven others.

Mayor of Berkeley Tom Bates said it was probable the balcony collapse was primarily caused by water damage to its wooden beams.

Water damage

In an action filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court in 2010, a company that owned a 245-unit apartment project called The Pines at North Park in San Jose accused Segue Construction of “failing to construct the breezeways, private balconies and stairwells at the project in substantial compliance with the contract documents and all applicable local and state codes”.

The developer, Irvine Company, said it discovered water damage on elevated decks, windows and other locations in the complex in January 2009, nine years after it entered its agreement with Segue.

Irvine claimed it found defects in “waterproofing of breezeways, private balconies, and stairwells” as well as “window and stucco deficiencies; and podium defects”.

It alleged this was caused in part by improper slope in the deck framing. “Other trades alleged to be at fault for the elevated deck damage include: sheet metal, waterproofing, stucco, concrete, thresholds and doors,” the filing stated.

Irvine and Segue settled the case for $3 million in September 2014, court documents show. Segue blamed the problems on a subcontractor, and it was noted in the settlement that Segue was the general contractor for the Pines but did not carry out the disputed work.

Based in Pleasanton, a city in Alameda County, California, Segue has completed more than 6,000 apartments in the Bay Area.

Segue did not respond to telephone calls or emails yesterday. However, a company spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle, which first reported the court records, that the San Jose case amounted to "a standard contract dispute".

The spokesman said the balconies in San Jose were “substantially different” from the one that collapsed in Berkeley. In the San Jose case, the building had long balconies, supported from below, that connected several units. The Berkeley balcony was much smaller and extended from the building without substructure supports.

The spokesman called the case “a typical post-construction lawsuit” and said Segue had “a very good reputation”, according to the newspaper.

Separately, the Chronicle reported Segue paid $3.5 million to settle a case brought by the owners of a 109-unit condominium complex that had been completed three years earlier in Millbrae, a city in San Mateo County, California.

The Berkeley planning inspector, Berkeley police and the Alameda County Coroner are carrying out separate investigations into Tuesday’s fatal accident at Library Gardens, with attention focusing on the hypothesis that dry rot undermined the balcony.

‘Structurally unsafe’

Mr Bates said there was a “high probability” water had penetrated the timber beams, and inspectors ordered a second balcony to be removed from the same building because it was “structurally unsafe.”

Structural engineers and architects who spoke to The Irish Times said the most probable cause of the tragedy, based on inspection of photographs, was a failure of the timber joists.

Kevin Hollingsworth, a Dublin-based chartered building surveyor with Omega Surveying Services, said it was clear from images of the balcony that the timber beams on which it stood were rotten.

He said the lower balcony, on the third floor of the building on Kitteredge Street, did not appear to have a drainage system, such as a down-pipe, that would provide an outlet for rainwater.

Mr Hollingsworth said the images raised three questions for investigators.

First, was there a problem with the balcony surface? Specifically, was there a defect in the water-proofing membrane, which could have let water through to rot the beams?

Second, was there a problem with the “fall” or angle of the balcony surface, making rainwater fall back towards the point where the external wall met the balcony and entering the structure? That, combined with a problem with the membrane, could have severely undermined the stability of the balcony and weakened it.

Third, was water somehow getting into the cavity of the walls? “When you look at the pictures of the remaining timber beams that were protruding out of the external wall, you see they are rotten and they had all broken off at the one angle – about a 45 degree angle,” Mr Hollingsworth said.

“That means there was a type of shearing force, where the weight imposed on the balcony had become too much, and the cantilevered beams had fractured and it all just slid off.

“My thought was, with them all shearing at the same place, was the water ingress which caused the problem right at that point?”

Timber used in semi-exposed environments of this type should be treated to prevent them rotting, and investigators will likely examine whether the correct materials were used to treat the beams.

Pictures show the balcony detached from the wall and collapsed upside-down into a balcony on the third floor.

Mr Hollingsworth said significant water ingress could do the type of damage evident in the pictures within a year.

Beams undermined

“It’s not as straightforward as saying there were too many people on the balcony and it just snapped. The underlying factor was the fact that the cantilevered beams were undermined by water ingress,” he said.

Timber-frame is used in Ireland, but Mr Hollingsworth said it was “not favoured” or as prevalent as in the US. He had never seen it used for an apartment building with more than three storeys over the ground.

Architect Ron Bertone, from Florida, estimated the size of the Berkeley balcony, based on the French doors leading to it, as about 40sq ft suggesting a load-bearing capacity of some 24,000lb (or 1,088kg).

Carrie Olson of the Berkeley Design Review Committee that approved the Library Gardens project in 2001, said the small balconies were designed more as decoration than a sturdy platform for large groups. Mr Hollingsworth said he would “totally disagree” with the description of the balcony as decorative. “It was wide enough to fit a table and two chairs on.”