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City Asks Province to Change Building Code to Ensure Public Safety from Shattering Glass Balconies

As yet another glass balcony shatters on a Toronto condo tower, city officials say they need the province’s help to ensure public safety.

“We don’t have any power” until after a glass panel breaks, said Ann Borooah, Toronto’s chief building official. She noted Ontario’s building code doesn’t allow the city to force inspections of glass balconies before that happens.

Police blocked off an area on Simcoe St., near Richmond St., around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday after a balcony shattered on the 25th floor of a condo building. The glass hit parked cars below, but no one was injured. City inspectors arrived by 7:30 p.m.

“I think you have to keep in mind the risk of injury is fairly small,” said Borooah. “It’s not zero but it’s small. (The glass) is meant to break into small pieces.”

Since last summer, glass balconies have shattered at 13 different buildings in the city. No changes in law have been made since then.

The timing of the Simcoe St. incident couldn’t be worse, coming on the heels of a city report urging the province to make an emergency interim amendment to the building code based on recommendations from an expert advisory panel.

That panel, organized by the province, tabled recommendations on changes to balcony construction last week, but the report has yet to be made public.

A source familiar with the report said it recommended that the tempered glass used in balconies be heat soaked, a process that removes most of the impurities. An earlier investigation concluded a minute impurity within the glass — so small it wasn’t considered a defect — was causing it to break spontaneously.

Another recommendation was to have the building code require heat-strengthened laminated glass — heavier and thicker than car windshields — to be used in balconies where the glass is located a certain distance from the building. If one pane shatters, the other will hold it in place until it can be replaced.

Most of the problems have occurred with balconies where the glass is beyond the cement balcony slab. When it breaks, it has nowhere to go but down.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing won’t say if or when the building code will be changed. The province is reviewing the recommendations and the expert panel’s report will be released in the near future, a ministry spokesperson said.

“We take public safety seriously and we will work closely with the City of Toronto and the building industry to respond to the panel’s recommendations,” said May Nazar.

In the meantime, the city plans to create a database of buildings with glass balconies constructed in the last five years, which Borooah estimates number a few hundred. The time period was chosen because the risk of breakage linked to nickel sulfide impurities is reduced after that time period.

But the source familiar with the panel’s recommendations didn’t know how meaningful the database would be because the incidence of spontaneous breakage can extend beyond seven years.

Once the list is completed, developers will be asked to voluntarily inspect balcony glass.

The city can issue mandatory orders to fix the problem only after the glass breaks.

The city’s hands are also tied because the building code wasn’t designed to force developers or builders to upgrade retroactively. In other words, changes in the code can’t be applied to existing buildings.

Borooah said the city is happy so far with developers’ voluntary response following glass failures. For example, Lanterra Developments is replacing tempered glass with laminated glass on two towers near Bay and College Sts. and a condo at Bedford Rd. and Bloor St.

The practice has “proven to be fairly effective and worked well,” said Borooah. “The risk of failure on those buildings is being reduced if not virtually eliminated.”

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Toronto Star

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