When it comes to apartment style housing, whether senior living or multi-family, isn’t it nice to have a connection to the outdoors? There is something about having even the smallest space to call your own, an area where you can walk out to enjoy a breath of fresh air, plant a few flowers, or sit and sip a cup of coffee. As a resident, you simply assume this is a safe place to be and don’t think much about leaning against the railing or having a friend or two join you on the balcony for a drink. This desirable amenity adds to the vibrancy of the living experience, but a lot of thought goes into the design and construction of balconies so residents can enjoy this outdoor space worry-free. As architects and engineers, it is our job to ensure that each balcony is safe and sound.
Wood balcony joist and trellis with steel column and steel hangar supports
There are many material choices available to the design team as it makes aesthetic decisions to create a look and feel for these outdoor spaces that complement the façade. Steel, aluminum and wood are available options, though the choice is not solely aesthetic. The construction of the balcony itself, the method of connecting it to the building, its structural support within the building, and the budget all play roles in the selection process. If the balcony is pre-fabricated in one piece, it may require a separate structural system within the building envelope to hold it up. If the balcony is not pre-fabricated, it may be constructed integrally with the building’s primary structural system. The type of balcony and degree of structural support it requires impacts the overall cost of the building.
Whether balconies are engineered by the building’s designer or by pre-fabricated component manufacturers, they each must meet load requirements defined by the building code. It not only spells out how much weight balconies must support due to occupants standing on them and leaning against their railings, it describes what snow or rain loads it needs to support, depending which is worse based on the building location. This includes how much snow can drift on it, what additional snow may fall on it from the roof, and what effect rain on top of the snow may have. The code also requires consideration of uplift forces occurring from wind and shaking forces due to earthquakes. These individual load cases must be combined in various levels to produce the worst-case effect on the balcony, such as what may happen on a windy day after a snowstorm where heavy patio furniture is being stored for the winter.
Rendered view of a wireframe from frame analysis software program – Juliet balcony
Wireframe from a frame analysis software program – Juliet balcony
During construction, the architect, engineer and contractor all have to be on the same page and diligently review shop drawings provided by the suppliers and manufacturers. If the balconies are pre-fabricated, the manufacturer/supplier has to provide shop drawings sealed by their professional engineer, showing that their product meets code requirements. These requirements are in place to ensure that the health, safety and welfare of anyone who may use the balconies are not compromised throughout the life of the building.
A team that puts safety first when designing balconies understands there is no better way to advocate for clients and residents than by providing safe environments.