Will Surfside Condo Collapse Drive Changes in Building Codes, Regulations?

Clues are beginning to reveal why the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Florida, collapsed. Some questions under consideration are: Was it a design error? Materials defect? Poor workmanship? A sinkhole? Erosion from storms, saltwater and ocean air? An oversight in building codes and safety regulations?

The disaster has spurred immediate attention to similar buildings in the Miami Beach area. Already, two Miami Beach multifamily complexes have been evacuated due to building integrity concerns, in particular concrete deterioration. More are certain to come, not only in Florida, but nationwide, as the Miami condo collapse brings greater awareness to such structures.

Time will tell the exact cause(s) of the Surfside condo collapse, but what is known is that shocking building collapses like the Miami disaster, are not new. Sadly, neither is the sorrow of the lives lost. If it’s any consolation, past events have led to enhanced building codes and safety regulations, as well as new techniques and best practices. These changes have brought about safer, stronger and more secure commercial structures.

Let’s revisit history and review seven significant multifamily building failures in the U.S. that led to improved codes and regulations for condos, hotels and other types of residential buildings.

The Disaster: Harbour Cay Cocoa Beach, Cocoa Beach, Florida, in March 1981
What Happened: As workers were pouring concrete on the roof to complete the framework, the building collapsed, killing 11 workers and injuring 23.
Cause: Numerous design and construction flaws in the flatplate model design and a lack of structural concrete design knowledge among the project’s structural engineers. Investigators pinpointed inadequate punching shear capacity in the fifth-floor slab, making it unable to resist the construction loads being applied.
Resulting Changes: Passage of the threshold law for new construction in Florida. The law requires a structural elements inspection during the construction of buildings that are either 50-feet high or taller than three stories, and where assembled occupancy exceeds 5,000 square feet and an occupancy of 500 or more people. Other U.S. states also issued stricter enforcement of building codes.

The Disaster: Hyatt Regency Kansas City Hotel, Kansas City, Missouri, in July 1981
What Happened: A fourth-floor walkway collapsed and fell onto a second-floor walkway, causing both to crash to the ground during a crowded event. Of the 1,000 at the event, 114 were killed and 200 were injured.
Cause: A flawed design change to the connection of the two walkways, causing undue strain on the walkways’ steel hanger rods. The rods were holding double the load than initially designed and less than that required in the Kansas City Building Code. Investigators also found poor communication between design and engineering staff, general negligence, and poor or no calculations.
Resulting Changes: Missouri and other U.S. states began placing more emphasis on the importance of structural engineering and emergency management protocols, especially when design plans change, including shop drawing review; design quality control; and proper communications throughout a project, especially when there is a change in personnel, inspections and structural observation.

The Disaster: The L’Ambiance Plaza in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in April 1987
What Happened: The 16-story luxury apartment complex under construction collapsed floor by floor from the top down. The disaster, which killed 28 construction workers and injured 22 others, remains one of the worst disasters in the state.
Cause: Deficiencies in the lift slab construction technique, which led to high concrete stresses on the floor slabs. This resulted in cracking.
Resulting Changes: Lift slab construction was banned in Connecticut and there was a nationwide federal investigation into lift slab construction. Connecticut also mandated more safety rules for workers. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) satellite office was established in Bridgeport.

The Disaster: Northridge Meadows, Northridge, California, in January 1994
What Happened: The apartment complex collapsed into the parking area below. Sixteen people were killed as the collapse crushed the first-floor apartments.
Cause: The soft-story construction building could not hold up to the 6.7-magnitude earthquake that shook the area. Several quality control problems were found in the building, which had weak shear walls in the first and second stories.
Resulting Changes: The collapse led to building code revisions pertaining to earthquakes and existing buildings. A voluntary ordinance calls for retrofits of soft-story apartment complexes. Another ordinance requires owners of concrete tilt-ups and steel-frame buildings to do certain repairs and retrofits, while another requires enhanced communications between designers and builders on the same project to eliminate quality control problems.

The Disaster: The Avalon at Edgewater in Edgewater, New Jersey, in January 2015
What Happened: A fire sparked by a maintenance worker’s blowtorch moved quickly through the apartment complex, destroying 240 of the 408 units. About 400 people were displaced, as well as 520 residents from nearby homes.
Cause: The wood-framed building had no sprinkler system in the attics or in spaces between the ceilings and floors. Sprinklers were only required in the living spaces.
Resulting Changes: Updates were made to New Jersey’s building code, among them a requirement for sprinkler systems in attics and other similar spaces. In addition, during nonworking hours, a fire watch is required on all construction sites at least 40 feet tall.

The Disaster: Library Gardens, Kittredge Street, Berkeley, California, in June 2015
What Happened: The fourth-story balcony collapsed, killing six people, five of them college students, and seriously injuring seven others.
Cause: Dry rot in the supporting wood under the balcony due to workers waterproofing the wood while it was still wet. Additionally, the building’s plans called for the use of pressure-treated joists, but the contractor used engineered wood, which is not designed for balcony use since it cannot resist rot.
Resulting Changes: Berkeley required the inspection of balconies and other outdoor structures throughout the city. Hundreds were found in need of repair. Additionally, the state legislature passed a bill giving the licensing board more oversight over contractors. California also amended the state building code with increased minimum load requirements and developed new standards for waterproofing, drainage slopes and ventilation for balconies and other load-bearing structures.

The Disaster: The Hard Rock Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana, in October 2019
What Happened: The 18-story hotel collapsed during its construction, killing three construction workers and injuring dozens more.
Cause: Design flaws that caused inadequate support to pour concrete on the upper floors and not enough time allowed for the concrete to cure properly. There was also inadequate design, review and approval of structural steel connections.
Resulting Changes: Investigations are pending by OSHA and the federal Office of Inspector General (OIG), but federal regulators have already fined the project’s engineering firm for major workplace safety rules. The city is waiting for the federal investigations to be completed before reviewing its building codes and safety regulations. However, two city building inspectors were suspended without pay for allegedly falsifying inspection reports and project negligence. The city is also examining whether the inspectors were properly certified to inspect commercial projects. Additionally, New Orleans City Council members want to pull the special permit for the site that would allow another high-rise to be built that is taller than regulations allow.

As with these past disasters, will the Miami Beach condo collapse also produce local and/or countrywide change? Already, Florida officials are reviewing state condo laws, condominium inspection policies and recertification rules. Currently, most Florida counties, many of which have high-rise condo buildings on the beach, do not require building reinspections after the buildings are completed.

It’s still unknown what will transpire following the Miami Beach collapse. Actions may be swift following the completion of all investigations or take years to enact legislation. But if past disasters are any indication, changes are certainly likely in order to prevent similar disasters in the future.