Avoiding a Surfside, Florida Type Disaster

The following article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer (with edits) on July 7, 2021.

It seems trite to call the collapse of the Champlain Tower South building in Surfside, Florida tragic, yet that is the closest description I can offer.  I cannot pretend to imagine the sorrow and horror experienced by those affected by this event.  As the rescue and stabilization efforts continue, it is only natural to wonder – how did this happen?  And can it happen here? Don’t we have building codes to prevent something like this?

It is important to note that officials continue to investigate the root cause (or more likely, causes) in this case.  I do not intend to speculate on the cause here, but generally speaking, buildings fail due to a compromised skeleton, or structure.  Issues can come from sources that aren’t readily observable on the surface.  The cause can be from outward forces, such as wind, snow, heat or soil settlement.  Faulty water shedding or improper maintenance can also cause corrosion of structural members over time.  One may only look to the Grand Canyon to see what water and time can create.  Certainly, we can immediately eliminate some of the potential culprits above, but Florida officials and inspectors will likely need months to come to conclusions on Champlain Tower South.

The aftermath of the disaster, which occurred 06/24/2021. Source: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department

Why did the building codes not prevent this, you may ask?

This building, as I understand it, was designed in the late 1970’s and built in the early 1980’s.  Florida today has some of the most comprehensive and robust building codes I have ever dealt with.  They have a stand alone code dealing specifically with high-velocity winds, for good reason.  In the late 1990’s our firm completed its first project in Florida, and we were rather amazed by the level of documentation required by them at that time.  Florida was just ahead of the curve, however, and that level of documentation is standard across the country today.

Building code are updated, generally, every three years.  Building codes themselves do not contain everything need within them as they reference specific standalone standards as well.  This is particularly the case with structural design.  There are standards created by the concrete, steel and wood industries, just to name a few.  With each building code edition, a newer structural standard is referenced.  So building codes, being the language of construction, change over time.

Building codes are a minimum standard to which a structure can be built.

Among the approaches permitted, a variety of methods to achieve compliance are available to the design professional.  Pennsylvania Legislators adopted the International Build Code (IBC) as its uniform code in the state about 20 years ago.  Recently, a review council approved adopting the 2018 edition and should transition early next year to that newer set of rules.  By adopting the International Codes, the Commonwealth benefits from the code development process that keeps the code up to date with current needs, materials, and methods of construction.  These codes are developed through a robust consensus process and applied by regions, down to the county of each state based on things like temperature or rainfall data, or wind or seismic activity.  For the record, PA will be about 4 years behind the most recent edition of the IBC (2021), which may seem like a lot, but across the country this is about the average.  No state, to my knowledge, has adopted the 2021 edition…yet.

“Building owners and developers often see building codes as an obstacle to overcome, but their intention is to protect building occupants.”

Building construction is the ultimate team effort.

Most people know that architects and engineers are involved, but as design professionals, we are only part of the team.  Building code officials, inspectors, product manufacturers and contractors that actually build the work all have to pull the line together.  And then there are those who write the codes.  Changes to building codes are proposed by members of the International Code Council, not the council’s employees.  This would be building officials, design professionals, builders or industry manufacturers.  But it is an open process, built on consensus.

Building Codes are not a Replacement for Building Maintenance.

Modern codes can help facility owners extend the lives of their buildings and avoid costly repairs, as well as survive the floods, hurricanes and earthquakes codes address. But they are not a replacement for building maintenance.  It is clear to us now that the building owners in Surfside were aware of issues regarding the foundations and concrete walls of their building.  Maintenance is necessary for any structure, of any size, but is paramount where so many families are concerned.  Local jurisdictions may voluntarily adopt the International Property Maintenance Code in addition to the building codes adopted by the State.  This could prove to be helpful to detect conditions prior to catastrophic failures for certain types of buildings, but would not necessarily prevent all failures.  It appears that some process was in place to prompt the engineering survey three years ago at Surfside.  Building maintenance is to a large extent, a building owner’s responsibility.  We are all presented with options to fix defects in our structures.  Needs must be prioritized.  A freshly painted façade may look great and attract buyers, but are there other defects lurking that should have been addressed first?  If you need help prioritizing, seek the recommendations of a professional.

Building owners and developers often see building codes as an obstacle to overcome, but their intention is to protect building occupants.  We, as design professionals, advocate for up to date building codes for new construction and renovations and we stand ready to support building owners in any way we can to extend the lifespan of existing buildings and improve the built environment.

Jim Mehaffey, AIA, is a Senior Project Manager with a specialized focus on understanding and managing the complexities of regulatory requirements in multifaceted projects. He routinely confers with local and state code officials throughout the country to review project specific issues and challenges prior to and during construction.

Jim currently serves as chairperson of the AIA PA Building Codes Subcommittee., providing educational content to members, as well as working with State Legislators on amendments to the Construction Code language. He is also a board member for LanCode, the Lancaster County Code Association, and serves on the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) workgroup currently defining the technical provisions of the code.