(CNN) — The deadly collapse of a Florida condo could force stunned engineers and architects, homeowners associations and local officials to answer questions about whether they have done enough to maintain other decades-old buildings and who should pay the bill for inspections and improvements. more frequent.
“I don’t think anyone in the structural engineering community has seen this kind of tragedy coming. I think we’re all bouncing back and saying, ‘Wow, there’s definitely something to learn here,’ ”said Anne Cope, chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. “This is a time like Katrina and Andrew, where we are going to learn something and make changes.”
South Florida’s building codes, experts said, are among the strongest in the country, designed to keep residents safe from hurricanes. The state implemented mandatory codes after Hurricane Andrew ripped houses off their foundations and left 65 dead in 1992, and some counties have added stricter requirements.
But many of the buildings in the region were built before 1992, including Champlain Towers South, which was built in 1981 as part of a South Florida condo boom. Those buildings are subject to codes in effect at the time of construction and only need to undergo inspections every 40 years, such as the 2018 review of the Surfside, Florida condo, in which an engineer issued warnings that the building was beginning to address. , but it did not warn of an imminent disaster.
At least 11 people died after the building collapsed on Thursday, and rescue teams scramble to find the 150 who are still missing. The condo’s collapse has also raised questions about whether older buildings have undergone the repairs they need and, if not, who will pay for them.
Those questions also apply outside of South Florida.
Environmental threats have led to changes in building codes in the United States in recent decades. California revised its requirements in hopes of protecting residents from earthquakes, and the federal government began to play an active role in building codes after the 1971 San Fernando Valley earthquake that washed away several buildings in a city hospital. Veterans Administration.
Louisiana implemented building codes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Elsewhere, tornadoes, rising sea levels, flooding rivers and other environmental threats have forced changes in building codes.
Other states have not adapted, instead letting city governments set building codes. Texas and Mississippi did not follow Louisiana’s lead after Katrina and other hurricanes in recent years, opting to allow counties to determine their own rules.
The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Security has rated states along what it calls the “hurricane coast” – the Atlantic states and the Gulf Coast of the United States. Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina were at the top of the organization’s list. Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Delaware fell to the bottom.
But regardless of building codes, complete structural failures like the one at Surfside are extremely rare in America.
“Buildings just don’t fall down like this,” said Norma Jean Mattei, a professor at the University of New Orleans and former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “I cannot be sure what the actual initial failure mechanism could have been that caused” the collapse.
Mattei said building codes in the United States since 2000 have been largely based on the International Building Code model. Within the code there are references to additional model codes on materials such as steel and concrete and on design loads.
The codes are updated, Mattei said, after natural disasters, as well as after engineers identify changing conditions, such as more frequent hurricanes or material erosion along coastal regions.
But, because the materials and designs used in construction have changed over decades, it is unreasonable to force owners of buildings built before modern codes were adapted to comply with those codes.
“So you have to figure out how you can think about how you can keep people safe and keep them safe, but without having such onerous standards that their financial health is at risk,” said Mattei.
Some buildings may need more immediate repairs, potentially at incredibly high prices for those who live there. That raises questions about whether governments are willing to partially pay the bill as part of the country’s broader infrastructure obligations.
There are still no clear answers as to why the Surfside condo tower crashed to the ground, but early indications point to some failure in the lower reaches of the 13-story building, perhaps in its foundations, columns, or underground parking.
David Haber, managing partner at Haber Law, a real estate and construction company in South Florida, said an immediate step to be required of homeowners’ associations involves requiring the collection of fees high enough to replace crucial items such as ceilings by the end of their life expectancy.
The condo owners’ association should be prohibited from leveraging the money raised for those purposes to use for cosmetic improvements, such as upgraded hallways, he said. And they shouldn’t be allowed to waive those fees to keep prices low to compete with nearby condos.
“You’re putting together in situations where you have to choose between making your lobby look good for sales purposes or having property that won’t corrode,” Haber said. “We have to level the playing field and ensure that boards of directors do not have the discretion to waive security reserves.”
“The problem is that people do not think beyond the immediate future. And he certainly doesn’t think beyond his life expectancy, “he said. “You will never get unit owners to vote to pay more money. Therefore, you should have less discretion at the board level in a volunteer board. It has to be, ‘Well, we don’t have a choice.’
Others said local governments should require more frequent inspections and force buildings to address the issues raised in those inspections.
“What we are trying to encourage our local leaders to do is make sure they have a thorough process that oversees not only the construction and remodeling step of the buildings, but also makes sure that we do our best to have an inspection. comprehensive, ”said Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities and former mayor of South Bay, Florida.
“We are trying to help our municipal leaders find ways to prevent this from happening again.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism