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Rising balcony accidents shine the spotlight on building code enforcement

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An apartment with an open balcony in Pipeline Estate in Nairobi on November 23, 2020. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG

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Summary

  • Rising number of deaths and injuries due to balcony fall elicits an urgent need for a review and enforcement of the building code to avert such incidents, which also cause permanent disability for balcony fall victims lucky to survive.
  • The Women in Real Estate (Wire), a caucus of professional women in the built environment space, further says a shortage of playgrounds in most residential estates has heightened the risk of accidents among children who are forced to play on balconies.
  • National Construction Authority (NCA) executive director Maurice Akech blames some greedy developers and contractors for contravening regulations when installing balcony guardrails, increasing the risk of accidents.


On Saturday, November 7, 2020, baby Kai Kenton Omukubi was laid to rest at his parents’ rural home in Nyambuga village near Yala township, Siaya County, hardly a fortnight after a tragic fall from the balcony of flat in Lang’ata Estate, Nairobi.

Barely a year ago, another unidentified child was killed after falling off the balcony of a building within the National Housing Corporation (NHC) Estate in Lang’ata.

And on July 12, 2019, another child, Andy Rawlins Waudo aged eight, died after he hurtled down three floors off the balcony of an apartment where his parents resided in Lucky Summer Estate, Nairobi.

Such fatal balcony accidents, which at times involved adults, have also been reported across all major towns in Kenya where the pressure for housing has triggered a boom for flats.

While the police declared these incidents accidents and inquest files opened, the rising number of deaths and injuries due to balcony fall elicits an urgent need for a review and enforcement of the building code to avert such incidents, which also cause permanent disability for balcony fall victims lucky to survive.

“There have been reports of children falling off the balconies and videos of clips of children hanging dangerously next to a balcony of a highrise building.

“The unsafe conditions of the buildings that expose children to such dangers is an issue that needs to be dealt with to avert fatal falls,” safety consultant, Gladys Nyaga says in a research paper on balcony and staircase safety in Kenya.

With increased urbanisation, there has been a substantial rise in property development even though there is little regard to safety.

“Approximately 61 per cent of urban households live in informal settlements. These buildings are not controlled through building and land regulation systems.

“Such conditions considerably reduce the risk-sensitive siting and construction of buildings and make building informality a significant threat to public safety and urban resilience,” the World Bank says in a recent report on building safety in Kenya.

The Women in Real Estate (Wire), a caucus of professional women in the built environment space, further says a shortage of playgrounds in most residential estates has heightened the risk of accidents among children who are forced to play on balconies.

Property developers and landlords are obligated to ensure the safety of occupants in these high rise buildings.

Common dangers are seen when children are playing and pass-through space in between railings or climb over these. Also, loose railings pose a danger to people who lean on them and the railings give in, resulting in a fall.

According to the National Building Regulations of 2017, balcony edges must include special features to protect users from accidental falls.

The regulations stipulate that the edge of any balcony, bridge, flat roof or similar place more than one metre above the adjacent ground or floor level shall be provided with a balustrade or parapet wall not less than one metre in height unless unauthorised access of persons thereto has been excluded by a physical barrier properly erected and maintained.

“In the case of any interior balcony or any mezzanine floor such balcony or floor shall be provided with a balustrade or wall not less than one meter in height: Provided that where such balcony or floor is used for public seating in rows such height may be reduced to not less than 800mm opposite the seating in the front row”.

“Where any verandah or balcony has been built over or upon any street no such verandah or balcony shall be used or adapted to be used as a factory, workshop, storeroom, kitchen, lavatory, bathroom, water-closet, urinal or latrine, restaurants or any other activity that interferes with pedestrian movement” it added.

National Construction Authority (NCA) executive director Maurice Akech blames some greedy developers and contractors for contravening regulations when installing balcony guardrails, increasing the risk of accidents.

“Every architect who is contracted to draw a residential and multi-storeyed building should be alive to the balcony design limitation. They must be guided by safety by ensuring it protects one from an accidental fall while the horizontal metallic strand to strand metallic bars should be closely spaced to avert instances where children force themselves through to their imminent plunge to their deaths or maim,” he said.

The World Bank urges for the reorganisation of building inspections to minimise overlaps across national and local-level agencies.

“A process mapping of current inspection procedures should be conducted. It should start in large urban centres, describing statutory and actual inspections, and specify relevant laws and regulations mandating all types of inspections and their specific objectives” it says, noting that a comprehensive process mapping would inform a streamlining and re-engineering of building inspections in major urban jurisdictions.

“It should be consistent with the objectives of the new Built Environment Bill and clearly delineate the responsibilities of each entity.

“Building inspection checklists should also be introduced to limit inter-institutional overlap and reduce discretionary decisions.”

The World Bank also urges for the development of a risk classification system for buildings to enable a more efficient prioritisation and allocation of resources for building site inspections.

“The classification would determine the level of prioritisation and allocation of scarce inspection resources based on the level of risk. The classification should be unified to create one simplified categorisation of buildings and construction works, combining elements of size, use and location in a risk-based approach” it says.