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Post-Surfside, Florida engineers say all large buildings need to be inspected

The recommendations come from seven of the state’s leading engineering associations, which formed a task force earlier this year.
People look at the rubble at Champlain Towers South, which collapsed in Surfside in June. Seven of the state’s leading engineering associations formed a task force that is now recommending that all large buildings be inspected sooner and more often.
People look at the rubble at Champlain Towers South, which collapsed in Surfside in June. Seven of the state’s leading engineering associations formed a task force that is now recommending that all large buildings be inspected sooner and more often. [ DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald ]
Published Oct. 28

TALLAHASSEE — Florida should require nearly all large buildings be inspected for structural problems within their first 30 years, with follow-ups every 10 years, according to recommendations by the state’s engineering associations made in the wake of the Surfside condominium collapse.

For buildings within three miles of saltwater, such as the beachside Champlain Towers South that suddenly collapsed in June, inspections should be done within the first 20 years of occupancy, with follow-ups every seven years.

The recommendations come from seven of the state’s leading engineering and architecture associations, which formed a task force to come up with ideas to prevent another collapse like the one in Surfside, which killed 98 people.

“We’re looking at this as the bare minimum of what you should do,” said Allen Douglas, executive director of the Florida Engineering Society and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida.

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The inspections would apply to a wide range of buildings besides condominiums. They would include office buildings and other structures that exceed 10 occupants and are greater than 2,000 square feet that are covered by the state’s building code. One- and two-family dwellings and townhouses three stories or smaller would be exempt.

“It’s our fear that if something like this isn’t done, we are going to see other buildings fall,” Douglas said. “It’s not going to be a single episode. And in our mind, it will happen sooner rather than later.”

If adopted, the recommendations would amount to some of the biggest changes to the state’s building requirements in decades. Currently, only Miami-Dade and Broward counties require buildings to undergo mandatory inspections of tall buildings. Douglas said he wasn’t aware of any other states that have a statewide inspection requirement like the one the engineers are recommending.

Whether the recommendations would have prevented Champlain Towers South’s collapse, which is still under investigation, is unknown.

That building had been inspected, with an engineer in 2018 reporting “major structural damage” caused by lack of proper drainage on the pool deck. Disputes among the condominium association’s board over how to pay for the repairs delayed the work.

On top of that, the building was poorly designed, with most of the column designs too narrow to safely accommodate the amount of reinforcing steel called for in the plans at the basement and ground floors, a Miami Herald investigation found.

Douglas said that while the exact cause of the collapse is unknown, the updated requirements would have at least led to the 40-year-old building being inspected, and potentially repaired, three times prior to its 2018 examination.

“We certainly think that lack of maintenance is a big part of the story there,” he said.

Of particular concern are older buildings and those near saltwater, Douglas said. The task force, which included members of the International Concrete Repair Institute, cited saltwater’s corrosive effect on concrete and steel for the need to have enhanced inspections for buildings close to water. They settled on recommending more frequent inspections for buildings three miles from saltwater after studying reports on corrosion and the state’s hurricane wind zones, Douglas said.

Under the engineers’ recommendations, the inspections would be done in two phases:

  • Phase 1 inspections would be visual observations under the direction of a licensed professional engineer or architect. At a minimum they would include random inspections of garages, pool decks, roof parapets, common areas and accessible exterior areas of the structure, including at least 33 percent of the balconies and handrails.
  • If structural distress is found during Phase 1, a Phase 2 inspection would be done by an experienced engineer or architect. The inspection would be far more thorough and potentially include destructive testing and the use of outside specialists.

Each inspection would be reported to their local building department, which would then hold the building owners responsible for any necessary repairs.

The group’s recommendations don’t delve into how condominiums should pay for the work. A Florida Bar task force formed after Surfside suggested, for example, changing state law to make it easier for condo buildings to raise fees on owners and toughen rules on maintenance reserves.

But the engineers acknowledge that local building officials could need more resources to handle the increased workload. The task force included Building Officials Association of Florida, which represents building code enforcement.

The group’s recommendations don’t address the design of buildings, although it mentions that the state could require buildings of a certain size hire a third party to review structural designs. Allen said they tried to consider cost when coming up with their suggestions.

Allen said their recommendations have been given to the state’s legislative leaders, and he expects the issue to come up when lawmakers meet in Tallahassee in January. In July, however, Gov. Ron DeSantis balked at the idea of statewide requirements.

“We thought it was our responsibility as an industry to put something forth,” Douglas said. “It’s up to the Legislature to do something or not.”