Balconies over Finished Spaces

integrated balcony over triple garage solid state home inspection

As a home inspector, it is easy to see that balconies on homes have gone through many different generations of design and integration in the home.

In the modern era, balconies on pre-1970's homes were not that common and if they did exist, they tended to be a kind of Romeo & Juliette style balcony which seemed to be more to keep people from falling out of upper doors installed for ventilation. Around the 1970's, wrap-around deck became common. These wood framed decks would wrap around 2 or 3 sides of the home and often incorporated a larger outdoor sitting area. As water proofing materials for these decks were still new and untrusted, these decks commonly hung over yards and carports. Wrap around wood decks went out of style in about a decade and for a period in the 1980's, many homes didn't have balconies again in favour of rear decks and patios.

New Water Proofing Deck Materials Emerge

In the late 1980's, some new waterproofing materials started to emerge in the form of both roll-on and vinyl roll materials. For building designers, these materials seemed to answer a need for a 100% waterproof balcony floor over finished spaces and a new design trend of integrating balconies into the home structure emerged.

Design Issues with Balconies over Living Spaces

The choice to place large and sometimes multiple balconies over finished spaces in houses and condo developments started to show problems for many reasons:

  1. Waterproofing - Waterproofing is simple in concept but very difficult to achieve (for cheap) in large scale balcony applications. Building materials settle, expand and contract at different rates and temperatures which puts a lot of stresses on the waterproof system. Any leaks in the waterproof surface that develop transpose into damage to both the finished areas below and possible rot damages in the structure between the balcony and the finished area of the home.
  2. Mechanical Damage - Vinyl flooring material was a revolution for balconies as it was flexible, lightweight, easy to install, and as a finished plastic sheet, it is 100% waterproof. That is, it is 100% waterproof if there are no holes in it. Unfortunately, a soft and thin plastic is easy to damage during installation or when occupants move belongings on it. Once there is a scratch or hole in the surface, it is no longer waterproof leading to damages below.
  3. Railings - One of the biggest weak spots for waterproofing is at the connection of the guard rails to the floor surface. The guardrails were commonly attached to the top of the surface putting holes into the top surface of the material in the process. A proper installer would have then put caulking around the holes created. Unfortunately, caulking and vinyl floors expand and age at different rates meaning the caulking, without diligent maintenance of the owner, often fails at this point prematurely.
  4. Drainage and Slope - Proper drainage of a balcony floor is needed for both occupant comfort (nobody likes walking in puddles) and it also reduces the risk of standing water penetrating the smallest holes in the water tight system. Drainage can be achieved by a proper slope to the outside edge of the home, or through internal drains in the deck. While both systems can work, drains in the bottom of the deck create a hole in the water proof surface that needs to function correctly. Expansion and contraction of different building materials plus premature failure of caulking materials can lead to early failure at this weak point.
  5. Sun Damage - We all hear about the damaging effect of UV rays on our skin from the sun but these same UV rays constantly are attacking the outside of our homes too. Roofing materials like clay and concrete outlast asphalt and wood largely as they can take the beating from UV rays for many more years. Vinyl floors on balconies are essentially acting as roofing materials in addition to balcony flooring. Again, this thin, soft, plastic material cannot stand up to large amounts of UV rays and we see this material breaking down, cracking, and losing its water tight surface in as little as 5-8 years in some conditions.
  6. Vapour Barrier - Water vapour is constantly trying to diffuse itself in the atmosphere and it is constantly moving from points of higher to lower moisture levels. Warm moist air in our homes makes its way into all the vapour permeable areas of our structure including to some degree the wood joists, studs, insulation, and drywall between balcony floors and ceilings below. When we apply a vinyl surface to a balcony and paint the interior ceiling below with a common latex paint, we are essentially placing two vapour barriers on either side of the structure trapping vapour inside. This vapour may then condensate in cool weather creating water and rot damages or may remain as a vapour attacking the materials until it finds a way to escape. Common vapour damages from integrated balconies often present themselves as peeling paint on the interior surfaces, mold growth on the interior surfaces, and condensation in windows on nearby walls.

What Can a Home Owner Do About Integrated Balconies?

Structurally, there is not much a home owner can do to easily remove a troublesome balcony. The best practices for these deck systems seems to be a diligent maintenance and material replacement strategy. Newer vinyl materials are stronger today and able to absorb more UV rays and may last longer than previous materials. Homeowners can also protect themselves by annually maintaining caulking and fixing and trouble spots. If vapour damages are a concern, painting the underside of the balcony area with a vapour permeable paint can help reduce damages.

How Should Home Inspectors Look at Integrated Balconies?

Home inspectors should inspect these systems carefully for signs of failure and general levels of maintenance. Observe particularly for signs of peeling paint below or condensation in walls for possible hidden damages. A good moisture meter and a heavy walk on the surface can also help to determine if there are damages below the surface.

Home inspectors should advise clients that these balconies are a weak area in the home and require constant maintenance. It is not uncommon to find maintenance or replacement needed to these systems during a home inspection and it often makes the list of things that need further review after the home inspection.

Final Thoughts

While integrated balconies are not a great design feature, it is likely home owners and home inspectors will be reviewing these commonly for the next 75-100 years as these homes remain in our market inventory. Home inspectors should become familiar with the different materials and trouble signs and be prepared to offer great advise to home inspection clients.

By James Bell - Owner/Operator of Solid State Inspections Inc.