On June 24, 2021, Americans were shocked by the news coming from Surfside, Florida that Champlain Towers South, a luxury high-rise condo, had suffered a sudden partial collapse, killing 98 people in the process.
The tragedy has been called one of the deadliest construction-related accidents in U.S. history, and it left many wondering how something like this could happen. While investigations have been ongoing, public speculation has run amuck. Some have wondered whether the collapse was a sign of global warming, possibly due to a rising water table. A lawsuit was even filed alleging that bad construction practices at a neighboring condo construction site had destabilized the structure.
In reality, the root cause of the building collapse stems from much simpler and common issues, and the sad truth is if they are not corrected, then yes, something like this could happen again. Let’s take a closer look at the Surfside condo collapse to see what we can learn.
Primary Causes of the Collapse
- From what we know so far, the demise of Champlain Towers South was likely caused by a combination of factors that worked together to create a perfect recipe for disaster:
- Salt corrosion. The condo’s beachside location was a contributing factor, but contrary to speculation, it likely wasn’t a rising water table that weakened the structure. Rather, it was a problem that all seaside structures experience in some way: corrosion caused by the salt water in the air. Over time, the salt corrodes steel and concrete, and these materials eventually need to be repaired, reinforced, or replaced. The issue is even more common for buildings right along the ocean (such as Champlain Towers) which are constantly subjected to salt spray from the incoming waves. Initial investigations of CTS indeed showed evidence of “extensive corrosion“ in the poolside area where the collapse began.
- An overlong inspection window. For some unknown reason, the Florida Building Code currently has a 40-year inspection window for buildings to be re-certified–an exceptionally long window in a climate where salt corrosion is commonplace. (By comparison, NYC has a 5-year reinspection window.)
- Poor construction. There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests Champlain Towers South was structurally flawed from the very beginning–that numerous building code violations existed during the construction process, and this contributed to its early demise.
- Delayed repairs. Built in 1981, Champlain Towers South was, in fact, due for its first 40-year re-certification. However, in 2018, an inspection in preparation for re-certification found “major structural damage“ in the building which needed immediate attention. Unfortunately, the condo association was slow to address the concerns–quite possibly due to inadequate funding from condo fees. (Florida currently has no regulation on how condo fees should be assessed to anticipate repairs and maintenance. Miami-Dade County has a law requiring structural damage to be repaired within 150 days, but it did not enforce this rule for CTS.
Preventing a Recurrence
There are concerns about possible additional building collapses among beachfront communities in South Florida. In fact, in April 2022, residents of a North Miami Beach condo building were ordered to evacuate after an inspection rendered it “structurally unsound.” The bigger question is, what can be done (aside from evacuating buildings) to keep this kind of tragedy from happening again?
As architects, we can see basic changes that could reduce the risk with these buildings. In our opinion, forty years is too long of a window for recertification. As the Surfside tragedy shows, enough corrosion can happen within that time frame to bring down a building. Surfside town officials have already shortened the window to 30 years in their community, and Florida legislators have also taken up the issue. We expect that eventually there will be uniform legislation that will require more frequent structural inspections. While some condo associations (like Champlain Towers) do not have enough money in their accounts to properly maintain their buildings or perform major repairs, and Florida currently has no regulation on how fees should be assessed, having a more universal protocol for condo fees could make it easier for buildings to stay compliant with repairs and maintenance, making these collapses much less likely in the future.