Norman Koplon, the director of Atlanta's Bureau of Buildings, knew none of this when he looked into the deck collapse at the Salvation Army party. The cause, at first, perplexed him. For one thing, this was no rickety, neglected structure. The deck, only 12 years old, had been built of rot-resistant pressure-treated wood and seemed as solid as the Georgian mansion to which it was attached. The deck wasn't overloaded either; it should have been able to support a crowd three times as large. Searching the rubble, Koplon came upon a small section of the deck that had remained in place. He checked it carefully and found that it was attached with bolts. The collapsed section had been held on with a handful of 12d nails—3-1/4 inches long. Instead of driving the nails where they would penetrate the solid-wood framing, the builders had simply hammered in about six nails every 16 inches. The result was that the tips of the nails penetrated the 3/4-inch siding—but not a fiber of cellulose beyond it. "The wood clapboard was supposed to be holding up the whole deck," Koplon says. "This isn't anybody's idea of a safe situation." In addition, the builders had skipped flashing. The wood behind the beam was rotten and riddled by termites. Amazed that anyone could have attached a deck by just nailing it into siding, Koplon researched the recommended construction method. Thumbing through the Atlanta building code, he found a definition of a deck—but little else. "I could not find a single substantial detail published on how a deck should be attached to a house," he says. "I just couldn't believe it." The lack of a code on deck attachment is not unique to Atlanta. Of the three main building codes in the United States—all of which were consolidated into a uniform code in the year 2000—not one dealt with fastening decks to houses. "You're not going to find any prescriptive details relevant to the structure of a deck," concedes Mike Pfeiffer of the Building Officials and Code Administrators, International, which publishes the BOCA National Building Code. The new consolidated code doesn't cover the specifics either—designed to fit all climates, it focuses on broad building requirements and offers even fewer specifics than the current codes. Home construction manuals also are little help, judging by a review of 19 books with deck plans. Only one contained drawings showing all the details required to properly attach a deck to a house. Many home owners expect local building officials to ensure that decks are properly built, but this, too, is a risky assumption. Although nearly all municipalities require decks to be built "to code," many do not inspect home-owner or low-cost projects, often defined as those costing less than $2,500. Bill Satter of Cav-Ark Builders Inc. in Niverville, New York, recalls building a large house in the Hudson River Valley for someone who later added a deck himself. When done, it was obvious that the supporting timbers were too small. The building inspector noticed the flaw and ordered Satter to rip it down. "When I explained the owner built the deck, not me, he let it go," Satter says. "It was okay if it was just something the home owner did." Some inspectors, however, have become crusaders for safer decks. After several collapses in Peachtree City, Georgia, building director Tom Carty made proper deck-building his mission. He even has a model of a deck, with bolts and flashing, in his office. When anyone applies for a deck-building permit, he says, "I walk them by it and make sure they understand every detail before I give the permit to them." The Gerisches also turned into reluctant experts in building a safe deck. By the time Robert Gerisch emerged from the hospital, his cardiology practice had withered; he went into forced retirement. Betty lost even more, but she's grateful: Surgery restored her speech, she now moves her arms freely, and her spirits are strong. "She's smart and alert, as always," Robert says. "It's just a miracle that I'm alive," Betty says. To help her get around, the Gerisches built a deck that slants down to the walkway in front of their house in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Betty's proud of the way it's attached: with bolts, nuts and plenty of flashing. "This one doesn't worry me," she says. "Believe me, it's solid."
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