The Australian Institute of Building Surveyors (AIBS) is urging home owners not to be complacent about familiar home surroundings this summer and have safety checks on structures in outdoor entertaining areas.
As Australians all over the country take to the outdoors in the festive season, our balconies, patios, swimming pools and other entertaining areas are getting a lot of use. These areas might have had limited use since the end of last summer and could have developed structural problems over the winter, posing an unseen risk to homeowners, family and friends.
AIBS says the recommendation for safety checks is especially important for older homes but applies to all homes no matter when they were built.
Every summer, Australians are injured or killed as a result of structural failures in outdoor areas of their homes. This summer has begun tragically when a young man was killed and his partner seriously injured after a brick pillar fell on them in Perth last weekend. The couple had been lying in a hammock attached to the pillar.
It is not possible to say if that accident could have been prevented, but it serves as a warning for all home owners to do what they can to protect themselves, their family and friends. This can be done by taking those extra steps to check the integrity of outdoor structures wherever people gather during the warmer months.
This applies to a range of issues including pillars and columns, balconies and balustrading, any structure where shade sails are attached and swimming pools, pool fencing and gates.
Shade sails – recently building surveyors have reported instances of damage to brickwork onto which shade sails are attached. There is a significant load placed on shade sails in wet or windy weather and once a year the structure to which they are attached should be checked to ensure it remains sound.
Balconies, decks and balustrading – almost every summer Australians are killed or injured in balcony collapses. In suburban Melbourne in December last year, two women were killed and party guests injured when the balcony on which they had gathered for a Christmas photo collapsed.
Structural supports sometimes show obvious signs of decay and a simple visual check by the home owner should be done regularly and building expertise sought if something doesn’t look right. To be certain, decks and balconies should be checked by a professional at regular intervals. Some areas have a high salt spray risk so steel components could deteriorate more quickly. Some areas have higher rainfall and there are also issues where leaf litter can cause deterioration if not cleaned up regularly.
Masonry including pillars, columns and brick walls – The recent Perth tragedy is one of many involving brick walls and pillars to which hammocks and other items have been attached.
Building surveyors recommend home owners attach items to masonry only where there is adequate reinforcement of the masonry to take the additional load.
How do you know?
Unreinforced masonry pillars and walls should never be used to carry loads that push or pull sideways on the masonry. These structures are generally designed only to resist loads applied in the vertical direction, namely downwards. If you can put your arms around a masonry pillar and your hands touch on the other side, it is probably not reinforced. If it is no longer than a single brick in any direction, it is probably not reinforced. If in doubt, don’t risk it. Get professional advice before attaching or hanging anything from masonry.
Swimming pool fences and gates – The ground around a pool fence can shift during the off season so a gate might not properly latch or gaps around safety fencing might open up to allow a toddler to access a pool area. Older fencing should be checked to ensure it is still structurally sound as well as the correct functioning of gate latches. Also, trees and other garden features or furniture might have moved or grown so that they provide an access point for toddlers into the pool area.
The above list doesn’t cover every possible outdoor entertaining hazard and, in the end, common sense is the best choice. If in doubt, seek expert advice.