The Impact of a Collapse

Looking to the past to gauge the future after Surfside

August 02, 2021 Photo

Although the circumstances surrounding the Champlain Towers South building collapse in Surfside, Florida remain murky, and the cause of the collapse remains unknown, questions have already arisen regarding the state of the building prior to the collapse: Who knew what, when was it known, and how was it possible that such a failure occurred? At this stage, any statements regarding specific public policy or building code changes that will or should occur due to this specific catastrophe would be premature.

Eventually, when the investigations (and unavoidable lawsuits) are complete, we will likely have a good understanding of what led to this tragedy. Until then, we can review and evaluate another similar historic tragedy and gain insights into the types of changes that might be expected in the wake of this awful event.

While many historic structural collapses have occurred in the U.S. and around the world, none may be more well-known or understood than the Hyatt Regency Skywalk collapse. On July 17, 1981, during a party inside the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, Missouri, several interior bridge walkways collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 114 people and injuries to more than 200. Failures of the structural design and later design changes led to this tragedy, but the lessons learned afterward reverberate in the engineering community even today. At the heart of the failure was a change in the design of the connection of the suspended walkways.

The original design of the walkways called for them to be suspended from the roof by threaded rods that extended from the structure above down through box beam supports on the walkways. The configuration of two walkways resulted in one walkway being suspended directly above a lower walkway, with both supported from the same set of threaded rods. These structural connections proved difficult to construct. As is common in the construction industry, a change was proposed, resulting in the upper walkway being suspended from the structure while the lower walkway was suspended from the upper walkway. This proposed change also resulted in a doubling of the loads on the upper walkway connections. However, the implications of this change were not realized during the shop drawing review process and were not caught during construction by either the design and construction team or the building department officials responsible for inspecting the construction. This doubling of the loads on the upper-level walkway connections led to the ensuing failure.

The investigation that followed documented multiple failures with the internal quality review process undertaken by the structural engineers. Additionally, it was recommended that engineers perform comprehensive quality control reviews, shop drawing reviews, and perform extensive structural observations to ensure that construction conforms to the acceptable practice and follows the original design intent. In addition to the recommendations related to the internal review processes, it was also suggested that design and construction professionals not rely on building department officials to find errors in the design and/or construction.

While, on the surface, the Hyatt Regency and Champlain Towers failures do not appear to have much in common, there are similarities. First, questions have already arisen regarding the thoroughness and accuracy of recent and historical engineering evaluations of the Champlain Towers South structure that were performed in recent years. Additionally, questions have arisen regarding building department mandated safety certification inspections and what such inspection programs could or should have documented.

Building Inspections and Certifications

Recent news reports have stated that a building department official had inspected a portion of the Champlain Towers South building roof just hours prior to the collapse. The purpose of the inspection was to observe the roof anchors intended for use by window washing crews. Regardless of the purpose of the inspection, questions are sure to arise regarding what building officials knew about the building and the overall safety of the structure.

However, it is both unrealistic and impractical to expect building officials to be the first line of defense against catastrophic structural failures. Just as it was recommended after the Hyatt Regency collapse that design and construction professionals should not rely on building department officials to find errors in the design and/or construction, neither should building owners nor the general public rely on building department officials to be responsible for the structural safety of privately owned property. In any given region, there are just too many buildings of varying age, construction, and with varying maintenance histories to realistically expect building officials to have sufficient knowledge of the condition of every one of them. Moreover, the magnitude of a project that would require building officials to inspect numerous buildings within a jurisdiction every year, in addition to the other duties that they currently must complete, would be overwhelming and would require the hiring of numerous additional inspectors. It is also unlikely that building inspectors, or other building department officials, would have the necessary technical abilities to properly evaluate structural and/or electrical systems to determine that the buildings are safe.

While it is not feasible for building department officials to perform such inspections, requiring building owners to have their buildings inspected for safety on a semi-regular basis by appropriate engineering experts is an option. However, even inspections by structural and electrical engineers to certify that the building is safe have limitations and do not guarantee that structural failures will be prevented.

Miami-Dade County has a building recertification program that applied to the Champlain Towers South property. This recertification program requires that buildings be inspected by appropriate engineering professionals 40 years after construction and on a periodic basis thereafter to verify that the structural and electrical systems are safe for continued use under the current occupancy. The Champlain Towers South property was 40 years old at the time of the collapse (construction was completed in 1981) and was in the recertification process with repairs having just begun. Neighboring Broward County has a similar program, and numerous other municipalities are considering adding similar requirements for aging structures.

Recertification programs are a good start for ensuring that buildings are sound and do not represent a risk to the health and safety of the occupants. However, these types of inspection/certification programs are still subject to various inherent limitations, including, but not limited to:

•    The thoroughness and accuracy of the evaluations performed.

•    The qualifications of the professionals performing the inspections.

•    Completion of evaluations and repairs in a timely manner.

•    Appropriate enforcement of the provisions associated with the program.

The first three elements above are related to the engineering and/or construction professionals who perform such evaluations and complete any necessary repairs. However, the fourth element would generally fall under the purview of the jurisdiction with authority over the location of the building (typically the local building department). In addition, insurance carriers often have inspection requirements for underwriting. These insurance mandated inspections are more frequent and less in-depth. The depth and breadth of building inspections for existing buildings may be mandated by municipalities as well as insurance carriers. 

Catastrophic Events Change the Standards

One of the critical factors in the analysis of the tragedy at Champlain Towers South requires a look from a historical perspective. On Aug. 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew made landfall in South Florida as a Category 5 hurricane, destroying over 25,000 homes and killing 65 people. It remains one of the single largest catastrophic events ever to hit the U.S. mainland. Community response was swift and resulted in changes to Florida law that greatly improved the construction process with stricter building codes, heightened product approvals for construction materials, and increased standards concerning inspections. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these benefits were not realized for structures like Champlain Towers South, which were constructed “pre-Andrew.” 

As previously mentioned, Champlain Towers South was in the process of obtaining its 40-year recertification. Recently filed lawsuits have publicized much of the information obtained from this effort, including photographs documenting prior opinions about ongoing structural failures at the property prior to the collapse. In the wake of this tragedy, and the incomplete evaluation at Champlain Towers South, a greater call is being made to reevaluate the 40-year recertification process and question whether it is sufficient, considering what we have learned from this incident.

Recently, the Florida Bar initiated a task force to review and evaluate potential legislative and regulatory changes needed to avoid a similar tragedy. The Florida Bar has appointed lawyers to review the existing condominium laws and to focus on issues, such as the current inspection regulations and the 40-year recertification process. Some proponents, including the plaintiffs’ bar, are advocating for a much shorter window—potentially a 25-year review.

Additionally, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has now announced that a grand jury voted in favor of further investigating the nature of the collapse. One can only guess if this process will mirror the historical aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, requiring a more stringent construction and inspection process. The financial impact on existing unit owners who face increased pressure for repairs via special assessments is sure to be an issue, and the same can be said for future developers and contractors facing increased construction costs. However, the effect on the currently red-hot housing market due to these likely changes remains unknown at this time.

Future Claims Evaluated 

One thing vastly different about the Champlain Towers South collapse versus historical structural collapses, such as the Hyatt Regency Skywalk, is the presence and influence of social media. Forty years ago, in 1981, when the Hyatt Regency Skywalk collapsed, our major sources of news were the television and newspapers. The closest thing we had to social media was calling our friends and family on a landline. There is no doubt that social media has influenced how fast information travels.  

Currently, potential jurors for future claims are being sent videos and pictures daily to their social media accounts, reinforcing the tragedy and catastrophic losses suffered by so many families. Can we truly expect them to follow the law and remove sympathy from the equation when evaluating whether a structure is safe? Consequently, future structural claims involving life-safety issues—and, more to the point, how they are valued—must also be considered by the insurance industry.

We do not have to look far for a recent example: Just days after the Surfside tragedy, a Miami-Dade County jury deliberated on a claim involving a failed roofing structure causing the death of a 23-year-old worker. Despite the fact that the Surfside collapse was never mentioned to the jury during any point in the trial, or even in closing argument, a verdict of $12 million was rendered in favor of the plaintiff.

In an ironic twist, at the time of this trial, engineers on behalf of the city of Miami were conducting inspections inside the Miami-Dade County Courthouse (which was originally constructed nearly 100 years ago) to determine and evaluate if there were any structural concerns. The inspectors identified multiple structural and life-safety concerns and the courthouse was immediately closed until further notice.

While the cause of the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida is still under investigation, we have seen the impacts of previous collapses that have improved engineering standards in oversight. It is quite probable that this tragedy will result in changes to building codes, insurance requirements, and the construction industry in general. We have also seen a jury verdict post-collapse that forecasts potential increased payouts by juries. The future will be here soon enough. In the meantime, our thoughts are with the city of Surfside. 

About The Authors
Multiple Contributors
Donna Friis

Donna Friis is a senior project engineer at Envista Forensics.

Andy Guerra

Andy Guerra is a senior structural engineer at Envista Forensics.

Gary F. Baumann

Gary F. Baumann, Esq. is a founding partner of Baumann, Gant & Keeley, P.A.

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