The Surfside condominium collapse set off alarm bells and could spur possible legislative remedies to improve safety.
By Mike Ramsey
IT WILL TAKE months or years to determine the causes behind the collapse of Champlain Tower South in Surfside, Fla., but the tragedy is already influencing the way condominium buildings are scrutinized in that region and other parts of the country.
Ninety-eight people were killed early June 24 when part of the36-unit high-rise tower failed, sending 12 floors pancaking to the ground. The ages of the victims ranged from 1 to 92.
Several factors could have led to the collapse. A 2018 engineer's report outlined numerous problems with the building that was completed in 1981, including "major structural damage" to the concrete slab below the pool deck. "Abundant cracking" in concrete beams in the parking garage also was identified.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology is conducting a full technical investigation—a thorough review that typically takes years to complete. In addition to identifying the causes of the collapse, NIST's work could lead to recommended changes to building codes, standards and practices, and other appropriate actions to improve the structural safety of buildings.
"This is an unspeakable tragedy, and like all NIST investigations, we will conduct a fact-finding study to prevent tragedies like this in the future," says James Olthoff, who is currently performing the duties of the undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and NIST director. "We intend to undertake a thorough technical investigation into what caused the collapse, to ultimately make recommendations that would make our buildings safer and keep something like this from happening again. This effort will take time, but we will work on this as long as necessary."
There are millions of high-rise condominium units in Florida—many near the ocean or aging, much like Champlain Tower South. The collapse has set off alarm bells for community association board members, managers, and business partners around the world.
"We, as engineers, are spooked," says Sinisa Kolar, executive vice president of The Falcon Group in Miami, an engineering, architectural, and energy consulting firm. "It's not normal for a building to collapse. Even if there's a hurricane and the building collapsed, I would still say, 'That's not normal.' I completely understand the public being freaked out."
Amid the heightened sense of alarm, local governments in South Florida ordered at least two residential structures evacuated over safety concerns, including a 156-unit condominium building in North Miami with a history of code violations. Hundreds of residents suddenly found themselves displaced.
Shockwaves registered elsewhere in the U.S., too, following the catastrophe.
Occupants of one downtown Chicago condominium building raised concerns about advanced deterioration at a separately owned parking garage at the base of their high-rise. City officials closed the eight-story garage for repairs, Crain's Chicago Business reported.
In Marina del Rey, Calif., a team of Los Angeles County inspectors fanned out at a condominium complex that has a history of deferred maintenance. After the survey, officials told residents of Marina City Club the property was not in danger of collapsing, despite the presence of spalling concrete, leaking decks, and corroded pipes, according to the Los Angeles Times.
On the East Coast, Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Steven Fulop said owners at several buildings were fearful because their condominium boards had delayed repair projects. He announced plans for a city ordinance that would obligate building owners to have structural safety inspections completed every 10 years.
Currently, every five years, the state of New Jersey requires life safety-type surveys at hotels, condominiums, and apartments, says community association attorney Michael S. Karpoff, a partner at Hill Wallack in Princeton, N.J.
"It's a short-term kind of thing," says Karpoff, a fellow in CAI's College of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL). "It's not really intended to make sure the building is structurally sound."
As clients at condominium buildings have been calling his office in the wake of the Florida catastrophe, Karpoff says he has encouraged them to have periodic structural inspections done, even if they are not yet required by law.
"We're taking a more proactive stance," he says.
The chorus of worry across the U.S. is understandable, says Iowa State University architecture professor Thomas Leslie. He says most modern buildings share at least a couple of commonalities: steel rebar-reinforced concrete at their base and the constant need to monitor and repair all building materials when they deteriorate.
"That is not just a Miami problem," Leslie says.
He notes, for example, that freeze-and-thaw cycles can wreak havoc at Chicago properties. When moisture penetrates concrete and reaches the rods within, the metal rusts and swells outward, compounding the damage.
"That will chew up concrete just as fast as saltwater getting in," Leslie says. "The defense mechanism is exactly the same, which is waterproofing and paying attention and replenishing the waterproofing that ages out or deteriorates."
In recent weeks, much attention has focused on Miami-Dade County's recertification program for older buildings, which requires them to undergo structural and electrical safety inspections at the 40-year mark. Champlain Tower South was in the process of recertification, and the board had launched a $15 million capital improvement program to fix myriad problems.
Miami-Dade's recertification program, which also requires follow-up inspections when buildings turn 50 years old, was implemented after seven people were killed in the collapse of a government office building in Miami in 1974.
Neighboring Broward County created a similar system in 2005. But Florida condominium buildings outside of these two counties are not subject to such post-occupancy inspections, even though many of them face the same type of corrosive coastal environment.
"We have king tides; we're on the water. These parking garages are like bathtubs," says lawyer David Haber, founder of Haber Law in Miami. "There's nothing that is different in other coastal cities going all the way up the line that isn't happening in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. It's happening everywhere."
Ideally, experts say, building owners in Miami-Dade and Broward counties are thinking ahead when it comes to their 40-year recertifications because it could take months or years to complete needed repairs if serious problems are identified by professionals.
The initial deadline to make any repairs is six months, but officials may approve a series of extensions if building owners show they are making progress, says Kolar, whose Miami firm does recertifications.
"For a $10 million project, you're probably looking at three years," he says.
Contracts for repairs typically contain a caveat, notes Michael Hyman, a shareholder at Siegfried Rivera in Coral Gables, Fla., and a CCAL fellow. Owners are on the hook if crews discover more corrosion and "chase" it to a deeper source.
"You have to keep going back until you end up where the rust stops," he says. "Unless you're Superman, and you can see through concrete, you really don't know how bad it's going to be."
Kolar says owners who take a preemptive and aggressive approach to maintenance often find the 40-year recertification process a breeze. Some even hire an engineer a few years out to help them make sure their building will pass muster.
"If you maintain your property, the 40-year process is nothing but paperwork," he says. "But if you don't, it's a capital improvement project, with everything that goes with it."
There is the rub. A central theme of the Champlain Tower South story is the reported resistance board members encountered over the scope of repairs and the special assessment needed to pay for the work. Costs ballooned from $9 million to $15 million over just a few years, according to published reports.
Observers say it's a common refrain at many community associations: Residents push back at additional fees or try to kick the can down the road to future owners.
Florida condominium boards themselves have become adept over the years at waiving or reducing the level of life-safety reserves that their own studies recommended, Haber says.
"There's too much discretion right now," the lawyer says.
At least in the short term, Florida condominium boards are expected to be less shy about raising capital improvement money. Indeed, they may have a measure of political cover in the wake of Surfside.
"Every time there's going to be even close to a question about the stability of the building, it's going to be deemed an emergency," Hyman says.
“You have to keep going back until you end up where the rust stops. Unless you're Superman, and you can see through concrete, you really don't know how bad it's going to be."
In the longer term, sweeping changes may be in store for Florida buildings, including condominiums. The most obvious potential remedy is some kind of statewide mandate for structural safety inspections, possibly at intervals shorter than the 40 years now required in Miami-Dade and Broward.
Florida previously had a short-lived requirement that buildings taller than three stories undergo five-year inspections. Some have suggested the 2008 mandate—repealed in 2010 as part of a broader package of building code changes—may have helped head off the Surfside collapse.
Others disagree, for a variety of reasons. Most glaringly, condominium boards were able to waive the five-year inspection requirement, according to the Daytona Beach News-Herald.
"We didn't have Surfside then," former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is campaigning for his old job, told the newspaper recently. He signed the repeal. "Obviously, it's a new day, and this is an enormous wake-up call, not just to the people of Florida but I think to the world."
State and national task forces are examining a range of issues emanating from the Surfside collapse, including structural inspections, reserve requirements, and how to potentially assist cash-strapped residents or retirees who get bad news about major repairs.
Industry observers and experts envision at least a couple of trends post-Surfside.
For one, condominium unit buyers are more likely to do their homework about the repair history of buildings. They may even take deep dives into reserve studies.
" If prospective buyers start asking to see basements and the mechanical rooms and stuff like that, that to \ me is much more likely to change things. Market forces are much more powerful," says Leslie, the Iowa State University architecture professor.
At the same time, developers who erect high-rises may take a closer look at alternative building materials that can be used instead of conventional concrete and steel rebar.
Two contenders, respectively, are fiber-reinforced concrete (FRC), in which metal, glass, or synthetic fibers strengthen the cement mix, and fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) rebar that is made with synthetic or other corrosion-proof materials.
Kolar says these materials show promise but are not yet widely used by builders.
"The production is more expensive," the structural engineer says of alternatives to traditional rebar. "And they are more difficult to manage on site because a lot of those have to be done in the factory to cut the proper size. There is not a lot of wiggle room if you get the wrong batch, and then your project is going to be on hold."
He adds: "A lot of (developers) are going in that direction because they don't want to be responsible for fixing the building after they (finish) it."
For people living in aging, conventionally built structures, experts agree that vigilance is the best strategy following the Surfside disaster.
"I think it ends up being an object lesson for the whole country—that we've got to be a little more diligent," says Hyman, the South Florida attorney. "It's going to change the paradigm, and it may be the best thing that ever happened, in the most bizarre way of all."
Mike Ramsey is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
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