The Unthinkable – Construction Failures 


surfside collapse

Thoughts on the Champion Towers Condo Building

The disastrous collapse of the Champion Towers Condo Building, north of Miami caused me to reflect back on my construction experiences and the various issues, situations and decisions that I had encountered through the years that have significance in regard to construction failures and shortfalls.   

I woke the morning of the collapse, by a Breaking News headline on my phone, making me aware of the failure.  At that time the extent of the collapse had not been fully realized and the number of missing people and deaths was not identified.  Being a builder, my first impression was that it must have been a building currently under construction, similar to the Hard Rock structure that collapsed in New Orleans.  My immediate thought was that the schedule was being accelerated, to accommodate the financial needs of the building’s developers and or owners, and construction scheduling shortcuts were being taken.  Obviously knowing now what occurred, it never crossed my mind that a fully occupied structure, that has lasted for 40 years, could have possibly collapsed, and certainly not to the extent that occurred. I can only imagine how a person unassociated with the construction industry reacted to the failure of a structure that was considered just part of the skyline, as well as a permanent landmark that would always be there.

How could such a permanent and outwardly stable structure, just fall to the ground?

I have worked in this section of Miami and am very familiar with these types of waterfront structures.  I have experienced the desire and manipulation of developers and building owners insistent on minimizing financial costs by constantly accelerating the construction schedule.  Loan interest during construction coupled with the lack of a positive income stream occur during the time the developer is actually constructing the building.  This is always a time of financial burden, where money is just being spent and nothing is coming in. The time required to build the structure is consistently identified as too long by the owners and developers, no matter how accurate the scheduling by the general contractor is. In most instances on a structure of this size, very sophisticated scheduling software is used to accurately schedule the work.  Granted this project was built 40 years ago and the computer systems were much less sophisticated than they are today.  However, schedules were still professionally performed, and I would guarantee that the general contractor had a professional scheduler on this project.   I have to honestly say that every time I have been associated with a building of this nature, the projected construction schedule is always too long in the opinion of the owners and developers. Note that I use always and every time, with total and complete confidence that this is the case! As the saying goes, time is money, and the construction of an income producing structure is extremely sensitive to this line of reasoning.  

During my years of construction experience, I have witnessed the disastrous results of construction errors, shortcuts, incorrect engineering decisions as well as  countless other shortfalls that have resulted in serious loss of life and dangerous conditions.  In almost every situation a competent contractor, unaffected by aggressive financial team members,  would have eliminated the liability and the problems. It is only when a project is managed and administered to effectively make the most money humanly possible, that problems occur. Unfortunately this attitude is extremely prevalent, especially with apartment and condo buildings where rental or purchasing income is required by the developer to pay the construction costs.  The faster the better, the quicker that tenants and buyers can be paying for the construction becomes the ultimate goal and anyone saying the opposite is simply making excuses.  The balance of money out against money in becomes the ultimate gage of success, and there are few  developers or owners that think differently. .  

Immediately upon the collapse we are  witnessing the talking heads’ performing their analysis of the Champion Towers and the “ so called “ professional commentators that seek money and fame for their analysis of how and why the structure failed.  Remember 911? Understanding that the majority of these individuals are professional “ talking heads “ and collect serious fees for their commentary, I have to wonder why the public continues to listen to them?  Interviewing the buildings developer, the owner or the actual contractor might make the narrative a little more palatable, however to speak for the sake of speaking has become such a fundamental money maker, that when a person that actually has something significant and meaningful to say is, in many instances, it is swept under the rug and quickly forgotten.  Contractors are deemed uneducated and without the proper skills and social standing to actually ensure the safety of a project, this is left to the engineers, architects, owners and developers to politically and academically determine how to construct the project and how fast the project should be erected.  In many cases, these individuals have no real clue as to the associated field conditions, the environmental elements as well as the nature of the human element of construction. 

All that being said, let me briefly summarize some of my own personal observations in terms of construction failures in general, and you can take these comments for what you personally feel they are worth.   

 

Substantiated by 45 years of construction, incorporating a very wide range of construction projects as well as construction responsibilities, this list is not meant to demean any part of the industry or any individual group or person in the industry.  I have my opinions as a contractor and builder and these are presented below. 

 

  1. Construction is a very unique industry, where the ability to smoothly and convincingly present yourself, is in many instances more beneficial to your success than education, knowledge, experience or capability.  Basically if you can “ bullshit “ you have a great chance of success in the construction industry. I know many individuals who have used this skill to elevate themselves to very successful positions with impressive salaries in the business. 
  2.  Money talks, as it does in every other business that pursues financial gain, however construction shortcuts that save money, many times jeopardize the functionality or structural integrity of the project. This is not an industry where a less expensive material is used to make a shirt or a pair of pants, this is an industry that  constructs elements of our society that house people, support people on bridges, allow people to move through tunnels under water, rock or large depths of earth.  This is an industry that is directly associated with human lives. 
  3. In the majority of instances, substantial savings can be obtained when associated with the most expensive aspects of construction.  The most expensive portions of construction projects are the foundations and the actual structure. Savings on these types of construction entities can add up to substantial dollars, but could cause significant safety compromises. Savings on the type of wall or floor covering is nonconsequential in comparison to reduced depth of concrete foundations or using standard reinforcing bars instead of the preferred coated or galvanized reinforcing.  
  4. Time is money in the construction industry.  The faster the project can be built in almost all  cases, the more money the developer and owner can make.  Many times the cash flow is dependent upon the timing of the project and when payable customers can be contracted with.  Getting the tenants into the building, so we can collect some rent or some mortgage money, is a constant anthem recited over and over again as a structure is being built.  In many instances, payment to contractors is associated with the developer or owner receiving payments back from tenants or clients. 
  5. Many aspects of proper and safe construction depend upon the curing time for concrete or the compaction time for surcharged sections of subbase.  Time is a factor that is being pushed to reduce costs, yet is the most important aspect of many very important elements of the construction process. Concrete gets stronger as time moves on, earth compacts as time, vibration and compaction is performed, all taking time. 
  6.  Although intended to support safety and minimize risk, certain building code issues can influence a designer or architect to maximize the envelope.  For example a height restriction on a structure will determine the number of floors that can be built.  The less floors, the less square footage for sale and for lease, therefore all owners want to maximize floors on a project.  This maximization within the parameters of building code height limitations can only be accomplished by reducing the floor to floor height between floors.  What happens?  All attempts are made to reduce the depth of the floor slabs, minimize the size of the columns supporting the structure and implement other size-reducing design issues  to maximize the usable square footage of the building. 
  7. Minimization of the loading factors used to design the structure will allow smaller structural members and thinner slabs.  The problem is that once the structure is built, no one is identifying what is actually being loaded into the building.  If a structure is not properly designed, and this design was minimized to maximize usable square footage, there is no control of occupants to comply with the loading of the structure, the structure could become overloaded and the code is violated, but more importantly the building is stressed beyond its limits of safety. 
  8. Deterioration of structural elements of a building.  Although there are required inspections of buildings, there is no ability to view the interior of the structures.  For example a concrete slab can be inspected by visually looking at the slab.  If it has cracks, or the concrete is spalling, then that is deterioration.  The problem is that unless very sophisticated tests are performed, it is impossible to see within the concrete slab.  Is the reinforcing deteriorating or is the actual concrete matrix being compromised?  These types of deteriorations are almost impossible to accurately visually witness,  therefore the inspector is guided by their personal experience, knowledge and education.  Human beings can be mistaken, and a structure could be severely compromised without adequate exterior evidence. In addition, human beings can be easily intimidated or purchased.  If a structure has significant structural deficiencies and the inspector is either afraid or intimidated, then the structure remains in full use without any effective quality control.  Or worse yet, the inspector is financially compromised and refuses to accurately report findings for fear of losing their job. 

 

Environmental deterioration can also plague a structure, and unless identified in a timely manner can cause severe structural damage and or failure of a building, bridge, or other construction project.  

Some common environmental catalysts, that if allowed to propagate could  cause significant structural issues. 

  1. Uncontrolled groundwater is always a destructive element for foundations as well as supportive assemblies.  Water is destructive even for common elements of nature, such as rock formations, river beds, earth embankments, etc.  The ability of water to scour and erode, has created some of the most famous natural areas in the world, such as the Grand Canyon.  Water will perform the same type of destructive action on manmade structures as well.  The importance of proper channeling of groundwater, proper underdrains, proper sub surface water control, etc. are all vitally important to the long term longevity of foundations of all types.  Erosion of foundation subsurfaces, or scouring of actual concrete foundations can cause shifting of design loads and result in substantial failure of structural foundations. Obviously the failure of a foundation can lead to catastrophic failure of the total structure. 
  2. Structural  penetration by water is also intensely destructive.  As we all know a small roof leak can lead to mold build up, structural deterioration and eventual ruin of a structure.  Water cannot get into a structure without causing architectural and structural  damage.  In addition, basement interior water can also be destructive by causing mold accumulation as well as interior destruction of concrete slabs, interior foundations and perimeter foundation walls. 
  3. Wind, either in combination with rain, or wind itself can also be a very destructive natural force on a manmade structure.  Wind causes a lateral force that can push a structure over, or an uplift force that can penetrate a structure and force the roof off of a building.  The intensity of a severe wind storm can be amazingly destructive and can cause phenomenal destruction to a building, bridge, or other man made object. Wind has the ability to shift the loading on a structure and apply excessive loading on supporting members that have not been designed to withstand this temporary loading.  Failure can result from such a shift. 
  4. Snow and ice can be extremely destructive to a structure.  The ability of water to freeze into ice and force itself against concrete slabs, foundations, or other structural elements is very destructive.  Ice buildup on eaves or elsewhere on the structure can open up seams in roofing, push flashings up or aside as well as  allow water to penetrate the structure.  Snow loading is also very destructive and can cause cave ins as well as structural failures under the extreme weight of the snow.  Combine a rainstorm over snow and ice buildup on a structure and the downward forces can be phenomenal.  Again, if a structural element is temporarily or artificially loaded without proper fundamental design ability to withstand this loading, it will fail. 

Unfortunately there are several  more elusive elements of construction failures, that only a person that has been in the trenches for as long as I would dare to identify. 

  1. We have already identified the effects of money on the construction industry.  However the financial effects of the need to maximize profits does not only affect the obvious, but also supports a foundation of overall insensitivity to the common good of the project.  A general contractor that conveys the attitude of maximizing profit, no matter what the outcome, introduces this general approach to all elements of the project.  Subcontractors, workmen, material suppliers, etc. will all sense this overall attitude on the project and will follow suit.  This maximization of  money causes such turmoil and destruction on a project that many different types of future failures could and do occur. The constant focus on making money causes all types of shortcuts by all types of vendors, contractors, subcontractors, workers, inspectors, etc.  It is a cancer that will destroy the ability of generating a functional, quality building. 
  2. We have already noted the general ability of a good “ bullshitter “ to get ahead in the construction industry.  Once again, like the maximization of money, the good bullshitter can and will destroy a project.  Proper construction techniques only come from educated workers that understand the business.  It does not matter how well they can speak about the business, it depends on how well they can perform the work.  A good talker will never construct a good structure, you have to properly build that structure and not just talk about it.  Construction is a hands on skill, not a talking skill! 
  3. Lack of knowledgeable workers and subcontractors.  Many of the social and political requirements of larger construction projects require that workers and overall subcontractors be selected, not based upon their skill and abilities but on social issues.  I refuse to get into this situation, however, in reality I have seen some very poor work by some very limited workers and subcontractors.  The larger the project and the more government money involved, the worse the situation is. 
  4. Construction is an industry that can incorporate a tremendous amount of material.  Whether the material is sand, concrete, steel, wood, sheetrock, you name it, there can be a tremendous amount of material required to properly construct some of the larger projects.  This quantity of material opens the door to either shortcutting the overall quantity or looking to save pennies per unit to secure an overall larger gain.  Either of these techniques can lead to structural issues or just a negative impact on the project.  
  5. Construction is an industry that can be ripe for payoffs and financial incentives to inspectors, workers, owners, developers, politicians, etc.  Payoffs and brides are possible in all industries, however, the construction industry is ripe for these types of possibilities and unfortunately can affect the life and the safety of the final end user.  If any of these situations are used to shortcut a procedure, shortcut a code requirement, etc. then failure can result or less than adequate quality will be the result. 
  6. Overall sense that once the structure is built it will remain forever.  Who in the Miami condo disaster went to sleep that evening with any dread of a structural collapse.  I can almost guarantee that no one did.  A man-made structure, once it is in existence for a length of time, is a “ taken for granted “ structure that individuals would never think could fall down.
  7. The artificial impression that the more money spent on a project, the more safe and quality built the project is.  This is definitely not the case and I have witnessed it over and over again.  The more money available the more sophisticated and clever the means of taking some of that money.  Can anyone honestly say that the Big Dig in Boston was not plagued by this overall impression of it being just too big to fail!   

Although the failure of developers, owners and contractors can cause issues of structural and architectural deterioration and in some cases structural failure, all man made structures must be maintained.  The responsibility of inspecting and maintaining manmade structures must not be disregarded when it comes to failures.  Unfortunately structures such as the Champion Condo building maintenance is managed and administered by a system of politically motivated and less than professional individuals called the “ Condo Board “.  This common means of managing the maintenance of a structure is very commonplace, especially in areas that become popular for their allure due to the climate, such as Miami and the rest of the coastline.  

I had a conversation with an individual this weekend who confided in me his personal experiences with a condo board in Florida.  His comments indicated that individuals who feel that they know better are the ones that make the maintenance decisions regarding inspections and the expenditure of condominium fees.  This means that the affluent person from another part of the world, who can afford a condominium in the most popular areas will run for the condo board and based upon their abilities in other areas of the country feel that they understand the maintenance needs of a structure such as the structure that collapsed in Surfside, Florida.  This is far from the truth and these maintenance decisions should not be made by this type of “ Condo Board”.  Professional engineers, qualified contractors and building inspectors must be engaged to assure that the real elements of structural integrity are maintained.  It is essential that there is a full and complete understanding of construction associated with the inspections of these structures.  The lawyer, accountant or real estate broker from afar will not have the professional knowledge and the experience to understand what is significant structural deterioration and what is simply normal wear and tear.  

Good luck with convincing the rich and famous that they do not have the expertise to run the show! 

Let’s summarize some of the largest construction failures of the last several years. 

 

Lotus River Complex, China – uncontrolled dumping of excavated material along a riverbank caused settlement that shifted the design loads on the structure and caused the collapse

 

Hyatt Regency Walkway, Kansas City – last minute design changes resulted in overloading of structural elements causing the failure of the walkway

 

Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Washington State – improper design of aerodynamics and the influence of wind on the structure caused the collapse 

 

Sampoong Department Store, South Korea – developers decided to eliminate columns to make room for escalators and add a 5th floor without proper design causing the collapse

 

Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy – probably the most famous, tilt caused by inadequate soil bearing, leaning has been stopped and collapse is not anticipated

 

Savar Building, Bangladesh – unauthorized floors were added to a substandard building resulting in total collapse 

 

L’Ambience Plaza, Bridgeport, Connecticut – construction technique identified as a lift slab was used and failed.  Decision had been made to promote the schedule to work under the slabs prior to final erection and structural completion, 28 construction deaths occurred. 

 

Hartford Civic Center, Hartford, Connecticut – snow and ice buildup caused such a loading of what was called a space frame that formed the roof of the Civic Center that covered over 2 acres of roof, totally collapsed.  

 

Boston Big Dig panel collapse, Boston, Massachusetts – improper identification of adhesive requirements caused the failure of a tunnel panel and the killing of one person.

 

University of Miami walkway collapse, Sweetwater, Florida – a technique called accelerated bridge construction was used to assemble the walkway in 6 days, resulting in total collapse of the walkway 

 

Bridge Collapses – unless you search for the failures, most individuals will have no idea how many have actually occurred. 

 

Big Bayou, Canot – Mobile Alabama, 47 deaths 

 

Silver Bridge – West Virginia and Ohio – 46 deaths 

 

Cypress Street Viaduct – Oakland California – 42 deaths 

 

Sunshine Skyway Bridge – St. Petersburg, Florida – 35 deaths 

 

I-40 Bridge – Webbers Falls,Oklahoma – 14 deaths 

 

Cline Avenue Bridge – Indiana – 14 deaths 

 

I-35 Bridge – Minneapolis – 13 deaths

 

Schoharie Creek Bridge – Fort Hunter, NY – 10 deaths  

 

Sydney Lanier Bridge – Brunswick Georgia – 10 deaths 

 

Mianus River Bridge – Greenwich, Connecticut – 3 deaths 

This list of construction failures are just the ones that made the top listing of failures.  Think about the less politically important situations, the loss of one or two lives, the failures that have cost the industry millions of dollars, that no one has identified.  Construction failures should not occur, however, for the most part they are stimulated by the need to maximize the most money from every situation by every individual, company, supplier, etc. that is involved.  Unfortunately this thirst for money  results in  poor construction practices that can immediately affect the health and welfare of human beings.  

Life safety is the most important element of any construction project.  Failures during construction are terrible, however failures after 40 years are absolutely unthinkable.  One of the most famous collapses in Connecticut was the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich.  The bridge simply slipped off its bearing pads due to worn and deteriorated assemblies at the expansion joints.  This bridge had been in use since 1958 and collapsed 25 years later.  How can this be?  A structure that has been ridden over my millions of individuals on I-95 in Connecticut collapses at 1:38 AM?  Like the collapse in Miami, this should not occur.  Inspections and due diligence are demanded to keep people safe.  

I hope that lessons can be learned by the loss of life and the collapse of the Champion Towers Condo Building in Surfside, Florida, however, the human characteristic of maximizing profit without understanding the ramifications will always be a primary focus.  How you convince organizations and leaders in the construction industry that we are jeopardizing human lives is the difficult part of the issue.  Construction is basic and simple but greed is complex and extremely difficult to control. Until the industry can ensure proper construction techniques, scheduling, materials and the use of educated skilled workers is mandated, there is no guarantee these disasters will not be repeated time and time again. 

 

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