It’s incredibly difficult to sell a unit without a balcony — and outdoor space to enjoy with friends and family is at the top of many buyers’ wish lists.
But too often balconies are poorly designed and end up being little more than outdoor storage space. And since they’re expensive to build, they become a burden rather than an asset.
A balcony can add aesthetic value to your house’s facade while providing extra space and outdoor areas to the home. Balconies resemble decks, though they differ in a few key areas. While decks connect with the ground via pillars, balconies attach only to the side of a building. Balconies also generally take up less space than decks. The process of building a balcony begins with planning and continues to the construction phase.
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How They’re Built
These days, the vast majority of balconies are made from steel and concrete, with a smaller percentage of wooden structures represented in the mix. There are two kinds of concrete balconies: continuous slab, which is simply an extension of a building’s concrete floor slab and those that are constructed from steel frames that are mounted to the structure. Steel planks extend from the building’s frame and are then filled with concrete. On both types of balconies, railings are added after initial construction and are either embedded into the concrete of the balcony or surface mounted.
Types of methods of fixing Balcony structures
How do you choose the correct method to fix a balcony to your structure and what are the advantages of each option.
These are balconies constructed in a manner so that the balcony protrudes from the face of the building without any visible supports other than the fixing to the face of the building. The weight and imposed loads are supported by cantilevering the structure off the wall. These balconies will not need or have gallow brackets or chains. This type of balcony, while possessing the most aesthetic result, will require to be designed in advance and will impose larger point loads on the building. This type of balcony cannot be added on but must be predesigned.
There are various ways to cantilever a balcony. In today’s building, another important factor that must be taken into account, particularly when using a steel balcony, is thermal bridging (conductivity). To meet U values and part L, there must be a thermal “break” created. To overcome this, there are several companies offering “Thermal break” balcony joints in the market, or a break is created using two steel balcony connection plates with a HDPE (high-density polyethylene) sandwiched between them.
Timber joists are an excellent solution and can be properly cantilevered by leaving a third of the joist protruding from the face of the building as their thermal conductivity is very low.
Concrete is also a popular structure, but again the thermal conductivity is a key issue in the use of this material.
Cantilevered balconies are usually made to a maximum of 1500-1800mm depth. Beyond these depths, the forces grow and require much more technical solutions. The smaller the depth, the less movement you can expect. Being cantilevered members, they will always have a bit of movement and “bounce”. This can sometimes make the balcony users uncomfortable.
Another form of supporting the balcony structure is using stainless steel cables that fix to the walls and “hang” the balcony or balconies. The balcony sits perpendicular to the building, a steel cable fixed to the edge of the balcony, and a large plate is connected to the building at 45 degrees. The fixing at the wall makes maximum use of the bolt strength as it is using fifty per cent “shear” and fifty per cent “pull out” forces.
This is a very aesthetic solution but is less common.
Stacked balconies or balconies on pillars
This is the most popular type of balcony structure, mainly because of the simplicity of implementation and the minimal load implications on the building. It is a separate structure to the building and on occasions is not even connected structurally. The balcony structure is supported using vertical pillars or posts. The weight of the balcony or balconies (if stacked on top of each other) is supported by these pillars and transferred to the ground where concrete pads are usually cast. The size of these pillars is a derivative of the size, weight and number of balconies stacked on top.
This solution has an aesthetic compromise of seeing vertical pillars but is usually chosen for the structural simplicity and ease of implementation.
Tips for designing balconies that people will use
A balcony that’s exposed to a noisy street will only be used for short times, and a minimal standing balcony will suffice. If, however, the street is busy with pedestrian activity, people can enjoy it in spite of the noise, and a large balcony is warranted.
Cut down on the wind.
People won’t want to use a windy balcony, but high floors are usually exposed to strong winds. To cut down on wind impact, build recessed balconies (balconies set in the surrounding wall), or protect the sides of cantilevered balconies with full height glass. When this isn’t enough, balconies can be made almost fully enclosed.
Even in cold climates, shading from heat and glare is important. Deep balconies above them can easily shade South-facing balconies. East and west-facing balconies can’t be shaded in this way because of the low sun, and require patio blinds for protection.
The smallest usable depth for a standing balcony is 1.5 to 2 feet. At 3 feet, two people can sit for coffee. 6 feet allow four people to sit around a dining table. Going from 6 to 8 feet will make it more comfortable, but any deeper is mostly only useful when hosting large groups.
Privacy is normally not an issue with balconies. The exception is when two close buildings are facing in each other, and then, opaque or semi-opaque railings can be created from concrete, frosted glass or dense latticework.
By default, most balconies in new buildings are very exposed: they protrude from the building face and have glass railings. This is good since a fully protruding balcony is better than a fully recessed one, as it allows for better views.
However, when balconies are deep enough, partially recessed designs are even better. Such balconies provide protection from the weather on the one hand, and a 180-degree view on the other.
The opacity of the railing is also important. A transparent railing allows you to look outside while sitting, which is important on high floors since there might not be much to see at eye level. On lower floors, opaque railings provide privacy from neighbouring buildings, while still providing the owner with a view.
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Where the balcony is located within the unit makes a big difference. A balcony that is accessed from the living room or the kitchen will feel more welcoming and will be used more often than one that’s connected through a bedroom. Forcing guests to walk through someone’s bedroom to access the balcony is uncomfortable and will result in lower use.
Don’t worry too much about the view — while it is nice to have a beautiful view from the balcony, it is not necessary. People mostly use balconies to spend time outdoors, not to see the same view that they can see from the inside of their unit.
How Is a Balcony Built?
Planning is the first step in building a balcony. The planning process begins with deciding where you want to put the balcony, its size and what kinds of materials you want to use. The size and purpose of your balcony will determine the materials used — the more weight a balcony must support, the stronger the materials need to be. You will need to create detailed structural drawings for every part of the balcony before beginning construction and include the dimensions on all drawings. Never start construction without a detailed plan and check with your local building department for any permits you may need.
When planning a balcony, take special care to properly design and account for all weight support systems. Balconies employ joists, or lateral piece of wood, that run between the primary support beams of the structure. Joists support the floor of the balcony while reinforcing the beams. The juncture between a joist and beam requires special support mechanisms, such as ledger strips or joist hangers. When adding a balcony to the exterior of a building, you must securely fasten it to the building while providing weight support. Look into various methods to do this, from using diagonal support beams to clasps, joints and masonry material, such as cement or even concrete.
A good builder always prepares for every exigency before beginning construction. This entails collecting all of the tools and materials used. Purchase extra materials in case problems arise. Identify outlet sources for power tools and find back up power sources, including batteries. Always clean and prepare the surface you plan on attaching the balcony too and ensure it needs no work — no matter how well built a balcony is, it won’t last without a secure wall.
Balcony construction begins, like all construction, from the bottom up. Start by installing support networks, such as diagonal beams, and prepping the wall that will hold the balcony. Builders create as many materials as they can before actually installing something — you can build joist and beam systems, the balcony floor and railings independently of one another on the ground. Install the joist and beam system first, begin attaching the floor to this then work the railing into the unit while finishing the floor. When you finish, place a heavy item on the balcony before standing on it — better a broken patio table than a broken neck. Remember, never build a deck if you don’t know what you’re doing — you risk hurting yourself and others.
Outdoor Vs. Indoor Balconies
The construction of an outdoor balcony differs drastically from an indoor one. Outdoor balconies resemble decks and attach to the facade of a structure. Indoor balconies integrate into the design of a building. Installing an indoor balcony requires far more advanced planning and construction methods, including complex weight support and structural integration concerns. Outdoor balconies can also comprise a part of the overall structural design of the building, in which case the builder installs them as the building is erected, not after the fact as an addition.
Visual Inspections are Important for Balcony Safety
Anyone can do a basic visual inspection for ensured and continual safety of a bolt-on balcony. The most difficult challenge of a cantilevered balcony is maintaining a tight weather joint where the joists pass through the wall. Joists will move with changes in moisture and temperature, as the result of expansion and contraction. The result is unseen rot and water damage, with a great safety risk. Caulk is often the weather sealant from water damage, and caulk wears quickly in outdoor elements. The repair of an unsafe wooden balcony often requires: rebuild, repair to the inside joists, drywall removal, and interior fixes. These fixes can be lengthy and costly.
A Safer Balcony Option
Bolt-on balconies are self-supporting to the building, which makes them a safer balcony choice. No joists exist behind the interior structure. Installation is two to three times faster than a wooden cantilever balcony (if prefabricated and shipped complete by Midwest Stairs & Iron.) Longevity is enhanced with secure connections, aluminium metal construction, and powder coating. Typically, a bolt-on balcony is made out of aluminium or steel, with options of glass railing, acrylic railing, cable railing, etc. The steel or aluminium can be powder coated with a broad spectrum of colours. Aluminium balconies are growing fast in popularity for their durability and enhanced resistance to the weather elements. One of the best things about bolt-on balconies is the ability to easily remove and reinstall whether you want a new colour, new style, or for some reason someone took a sledgehammer and did some damage. Tenants like visual safety and aesthetics. Architects like the vast design possibilities. Property developers like the cost value and life safety enhancement.
How to test your current wooden balcony for safety?
Call an expert. An expert will inspect methods that may include using a ladder to examine the exterior and interior wood cantilevered joists. The typical safety test uses a screwdriver or awl to probe the joists, look for gaps, and to punch a small hole for a rot check. The inside of the building may show signs of water damage, such as a bump in the floor. A weak frame is a life safety hazard and is a constant problem in traditional wooden cantilever construction at low-rise apartments and condominium complexes.
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All About the Maintenance
There is no common cure for lack of maintenance. “If you stay on top of maintenance by sealing cracks and using clear coatings, your costs are going to be severely reduced, and you’re going to put some longevity into your ownership.”
With proper maintenance, balconies can last generations. “There’s no reason that concrete balconies can’t last 50 years. “And on the other hand, the balconies on some buildings built five years ago need to be completely restored.”
Wooden decks, for example, “should be washed and sealed every two years. A lot of places are on a three-year cycle but then what you get is one year of maintenance and two years of water damage. Even if a product says it will last three years, you should do it every two.”
A lot of maintenance harkens back to simply doing things right during the building process and staying on top of a regular sealing, coating and care schedule. Corrosion problems may have started before the first residents even moved into the building. Exposure to water or salt could have taken place before the concrete was even added, or in older buildings, contractors may have added a concrete accelerator to the mix. That accelerator contained salt, which in turn causes corrosion.
Location, too, might factor into how often a balcony should be maintained and the level of diligence necessary for its preservation. “The closer to saltwater you are, the sooner corrosion is going to happen. Carbon dioxide from heavy traffic also can play a number on the health and well-being of concrete and steel.
Acting quickly when problems occur can help minimize damage. Repair strategies might include “resurfacing the balcony deck, fascia and underside with a concrete deck coating material. “Utilizing concrete repair mortar for surface cracks and hairline cracks, and using a concrete patching product for spall repair” is also key. For rust issues, the removal of that rust “from exposed metal rebars or wire mesh and the application of a rust inhibitor coating” will likely solve the problems. And finally, “loose railing posts should be reset in non-shrink grout with the penetration fully caulked.”
While these repairs can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several weeks for a complete replacement, they are well worth the time and effort.
Balconies are our places of refuge and our doors into the natural world. They’re among our most prized pieces of real estate—certainly, that’s something worth protecting.