ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz is the founder and principal of the architectural firm Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón, with offices in Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SURFSIDE BUILDING TOOK THE WORLD BY SURPRISE.
On June 24th part of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Florida suddenly collapsed. In an instant, loved ones and homes were lost and gone. Even though we don’t yet know what caused this tragedy to happen, we can only learn from it, build resiliently, and take precautions to prevent this from happening anywhere else. Here are 6 takeaways from the Surfside building collapse:
1. THE BUILDING COLLAPSE
No one will know exactly what caused the 40-year-old Surfside building to collapse, but there are many theories of possible triggers.
Engineers have suggested that the failure began at a point near the bottom of the structure, around the pool area in front of the south-facing central section. Experts gathering information at the scene are considering a range of possible causes such as structural defects due to environmental influences, design flaws, and less robust construction allowed under the building codes of four decades ago when the complex was built.
2. SECTION 8-11(F) OF THE BUILDING CODES
After the collapse, many people began referring to the Broward Miami-Dade Counties building codes as a source for information on the building’s construction and maintenance. More specifically people paid attention to Section 8-11(f) of the codes, which is the 40-year building recertification.
This building recertification is basically a structural and electrical safety inspection in which owners of 40-year-or-older buildings in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties must have structural and electrical safety inspections by a Florida registered professional engineer or an architect who has the training and experience to do these inspections. These inspections must be repeated every 10 years. The purpose of this safety inspection is to minimize building failure and keep people in and around the building, safe.
Notably, the building recertification does not require that owners bring their buildings up to current building codes given the cost of the repair does not exceed 25% of the assessed value of the system being repaired, such as railings, roof, etc. This is why experts are considering outdated building codes as a factor for the Surfside collapse.
3. 2018 STRUCTURAL FIELD SURVEY REPORT FINDINGS
Three years before the deadly Surfside building collapse, a Structural Field Survey Report found alarming evidence of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage under the building.
This 2018 Structural Field Survey Report was made by an engineer hired by Surfside’s condo owners’ association to examine the building. This report helped set in motion plans for a $12 million repair project. However, the repair project had been set to start more than two and a half years after the building managers were warned about the structural damage. If the repair project had been done earlier, the collapse could have maybe been prevented.
4. PUERTO RICO’S CONCERN
As we reflect on what happened in Florida with the Surfside building collapse, we can’t help but wonder if this tragedy can happen in our neighborhood. In Puerto Rico, nearly four years after hurricane María hit the island, a lot of condominiums and government buildings remain unrepaired. This is because building owners are still waiting to be paid by their insurers in order to conduct the necessary repairs.
In 2020, the New York Times published an article about the insurance companies who have ignored, denied or underpaid claim holders in Puerto Rico. It’s estimated that as many as 750,000 Puerto Ricans are still living in units that have not been repaired since Hurricane María. For this reason, claim holders are pushing federal lawmakers to hold these insurance companies accountable in order to see that claims are paid and building repairs are conducted on the Island.
5. WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you wish to begin repairing or reinforcing your building structure you can do so by maintaining its condition and strength.
Maintaining the condition and strength of your building requires continuous monitoring and frequent maintenance. Check that openings are properly sealed, inspect window framing, vents, and doors annually, for signs of wear or separation. Watch out for corrosion, and regularly inspect outdoor fixtures for signs of rust, corrosion, leaks, seepage, and cracks. Clean immediately and replace corroded elements if necessary.
The best way to maintain any structure is to understand its vulnerability and implement the solution that best targets it. Periodic maintenance is extremely important for the overall health of any structure, and knowing what makes the foundation, walls, and roof of the building strong can help create an overall upgrade approach while addressing multiple hazards at once.
6. TAKE BUILDING CODES SERIOUSLY
A key part in building responsibly and resiliently is to follow the latest building codes. Always consult a licensed architect or engineer to ensure your property complies with the latest building codes in order to protect the lives of the people you love and potentially mitigate property damage caused by natural and man-made disasters.
Building codes serve as a baseline in the creation of structures that can withstand extreme circumstances such as seismic activity, hurricane winds, impact from flying objects, rains, and floods, to minimize physical damage and save lives. The more you enforce the building codes, the safer your structure will be.
Resilient building with frequent structure monitoring and periodic maintenance, allows us to create structures that can help us be better prepared for man-made and natural disasters.
When the Surfside building collapsed, we were all left in shock. It was hard to process what just happened and why. Like many others, our family and friends lost loved ones during this tragic incident. We can’t let something like this happen again anywhere, and we will do our part to make sure that it does not. Our hearts and prayers are with those who lost their loved ones during this difficult time. We will never forget.