Taking engineers seriously

Thanks to the hard work of experts, the condo collapse in Florida is an anomaly

By Amara Rozgus July 19, 2021
Courtesy: CFE Media & Technology

The condominium building collapse in late June in Surfside, Florida, is as fascinating as it is devastating. The horror and death captured everyone’s attention. And questions are being asked from every angle. Was saltwater and the seaside air to blame? Was the 12-story residence built on unstable ground, or did the ground change over time? Were there structural issues? 

The condo building was 40 years old, and undergoing an inspection by local code authorities. Florida has different requirements than other states, due in part to requirements for hurricane resiliency, saltwater corrosion and land restrictions.  

A team of government and private forensic scientists and engineers will be assembled, and it will likely take some time to gather evidence to finalize the cause of the disturbing collapse.  

Like other places with horrific accidents or deadly events, the local code for multistory buildings probably will change to address any issues found in the report. Like the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11 or the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, studies were done and building practices changed to meet the challenges of these events.  

Some of the toughest building codes in the country are written after a catastrophic event to eliminate the possibility of devastation from an earthquake, a fire or a tornado. Or, in the case of the condo collapse, to remove the potential for faulty design or construction.  

Codes and standards typically run on a cycle of being updated every few years, with several of them updating every three years. While it takes time to write and rewrite the codes, and time to consider new technologies engineers can specify, is this amount of time too long? Should there be some sort of push to update codes more quickly to achieve faster changes and correspond with new options on the market? Can anything be automated or made intelligent to speed things along? 

While the concept of speeding the code cycle sounds smart, the reality is that it doesn’t affect every building. A 40-year-old building isn’t likely to upgrade to meet rigorous energy efficiency standards or add automated fire sprinkler systems in individual apartments. It’s not only expensive, it’s simply not required. Existing building stock exceeds that of new buildings; these older structures might meet the basics of the local code, but nothing more.  

The Surfside condo was being inspected for electrical and structural issues, mandated by Florida every 40 years. While this might seem like a long time, it was a rather young building by some standards.  

While experts will eventually tell us what brought on this tragedy, it’s motivation for engineers and building professionals to continue to take their jobs seriously every single day. Thank you for doing a great job. 

Author Bio: Amara is the Editor-in-Chief/Content Strategy Leader for Consulting-Specifying Engineer.