Research in Progress – Building Safer Balconies

The scene is iconic, Juliet on her balcony calling out into the night, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”, and Romeo calling up from the garden below to his star-crossed love, desperation in his heart. It is a scene that is known nearly all around the world. To many, it is what gives balconies their romantic appeal.

Construction in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Home Innovation Research Labs)

What a different scene it would have been if Shakespeare was not only a writer but an engineer who understood the difficulties of balcony architecture and construction. Balconies would be viewed with less rosy lenses if Shakespeare, instead of giving Romeo “love’s light wings,” gave him a balcony with moisture-driven rot and the moment he began to climb towards Juliet, the structure unmoored and flattened him under piles of destabilized building materials.

Although it may be lighthearted to imagine Romeo in a different balcony scenario, between 2001 and 2016 there have been approximately 239 balcony and deck collapses in the United States alone. In just two high-profile balcony collapses in Berkeley, CA and Chicago, IL, a total of nineteen fatalities resulted. As buildings age, construction defects become fatal defects.

Xiping Wang, FPL forest products technologist

Xiping Wang, a forest products technologist at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) together with researchers from Home Innovation Research Labs, is researching the moisture performance of balconies and decks in midrise multifamily and mixed-use wood-frame buildings with various types of exterior cladding materials in order to create safer building standards. “Durable Solutions for Balconies and Decks in Midrise Buildings,” is a research project in progress that aims to make sure that all the balconies we step out on will remain safe and durable.

Moisture is the enemy to balcony durability.

Balconies and decks are the most vulnerable building element because of their exposure to weather. When finishes, such as concrete topping, or water-absorptive claddings, such as stucco or brick, are used in construction, they can pose challenges to the long-term integrity of a balcony from limited drying to carrying too heavy of a moisture load. Because of their placement they “can act as a water entry point causing long-term damage to enclosure materials, balcony connections and components.”

The value of apartment balconies is significant. A 2015 London real estate report found that apartments and homes with a balcony added nearly 12% to property value. In addition to real estate value, balconies add value to a resident’s life. They are an extension of a home’s living space, a connection to the outside world and nature.

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that in organic architecture there should be seamless integration of interior and exterior space; the outdoors should fluidly transition to the indoors. One might assume he meant that philosophy applied to balconies as an architectural feature since he integrated them into most of his greatest works.

A 2016 Frontiers in Public Health article, “The Human-Nature Relationship and Its Impact on Health: A Critical Review,” pointed to a human need to be connected with nature for overall better health. Just visual exposure to nature and small amounts of daily engagement with the natural world provided health benefits. A quick google search will show that balcony gardens are a huge and popular movement in apartment dwellers. Humans need nature and for those living in midrise apartments, balconies provide that vital connection.

Balconies serve residents as a medium for nature, romance, added livability, overall health, and connection with the outside world. FPL’s forest products technologists are making sure those valuable commodities stay secure and long-lasting. Throughout this research project an inventory of deck and balcony designs will be collected, reviewed, and two to four will be constructed and tested in laboratory. A final report of best practices for balcony and deck construction in midrise wood-frame buildings will be completed by September 2021.

Stay-tuned to Lab Notes for further news about this developing research. To find out more about the amazing advancements our scientists are making, visit the Forest Products Laboratory at: https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/