What Comes After the Champlain Tower Collapse?
Editor’s Note: Although this article is geared toward the multifamily space, many window companies supply to multifamily and light commercial structures. It is critical to stay on top of the latest code discussions for the building space, particularly as they may pertain to the fenestration and glazing industries.
On June 24, 2021, Champlain South Tower collapsed in Surfside, Florida, killing 98 people. The National Institute of Standards & Technology, or NIST, immediately began an investigation. Although no timetable for the identification of the causes of the collapse has been announced, the NIST investigation is expected to take two years or more. Congress has authorized $22 million to fund that effort. So far, at least seven other buildings in South Florida have been evacuated due to safety concerns.
How could this happen from a building code enforcement standpoint?
The current state of code enforcement
Typically, the authority of building code officials begins with the submission of construction drawings and ends when a Certificate of Occupancy is issued after inspections, intended to ensure compliance with all building code requirements, are complete.
The Florida building code also includes a “threshold inspection law,” which was adopted in the wake of the 1981 Harbor Bay Condominium collapse, which was caused by numerous deviations from the building’s approved construction drawings. Florida’s threshold inspection law requires all structural elements of large-occupancy buildings (500 or more) to be inspected by a third‐party “threshold inspector” to ensure compliance with approved construction drawings and Florida’s building codes. However, Florida’s threshold inspection law did not extend the authority of building code officials to include post-occupancy inspections.
Beyond its relatively unique threshold inspection law, Florida has some of the U.S.’s most stringent storm-specific building code requirements. These came about after Hurricane Andrew destroyed more than 25,000 homes and damaged 100,000 more in 1992. Nevertheless, even the changes made to Florida’s building codes following Hurricane Andrew did not require any post-occupancy building inspections.
Only two Florida counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, require mandatory recertification inspections, and these are only required after 40 years of occupancy.
Recertification inspections, coupled with specific compliance periods and potential penalties for noncompliance, seem likely. Recent recommendations from the Florida Bar Association and the Architects & Engineers Task Force back up these predictions.
The Florida Bar Association created a task force to develop proposed legislation to address the Surfside collapse. Among its recommendations:
- Regular inspections. Florida has more than 1.5 million residential condos, and of those, nearly 600,000 are at least 40 years old, with an estimated 2 million people living in condos 30 years old or older. The Bar task force recommends structural inspections every five years. That should provide timely notice of any significant deterioration and give condo associations time to budget for repairs.
- Strengthening reserves. Condos typically fund major repair projects by using reserves or levying special assessments on unit owners. But existing loopholes allow condo associations to waive or reduce these reserves, which may be more financially palatable to unit owners, but can also defer much-needed repairs. The task force recommends tightening condominium laws to close loopholes that allow reserves to be waived or reduced, thus providing money for long‐term maintenance and repair. Likewise, this would make it easier for condo associations to levy assessments or borrow money for major repairs, in turn, funding projects necessary to safely prolong building life.
- Increase transparency. The Bar task force would also increase transparency so that condo boards, unit owners and government building officials would all be more informed about the structural integrity of their buildings and plans for keeping them safe. Florida law currently has no requirement for reporting or tracking a condo’s maintenance records. The task force recommends a standard template for inspection records and more document‐sharing between local governments, condo associations and property owners and buyers. Having more eyes on the state of these buildings, and in real time, could keep more needed repairs from falling through the cracks.
A Florida Task Force of Architects and Engineers released similar recommendations. Some of its recommendations are:
- Florida should require that nearly all large buildings be inspected for structural problems within their first 30 years, with follow‐ups every 10 years.
- For buildings within three miles of salt water, such as Champlain Towers, inspections should be done within the first 20 years of occupancy, with follow‐ups every seven years.
- These inspections would apply to condominiums, office buildings and any other buildings that exceed 10 occupants, are greater than 2,000 square feet and that are covered by the state’s building code. Only one‐ and two‐family dwellings and townhouses three stories or smaller would be exempt from this requirement.
- Inspections would be conducted in 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.
What does this mean for our industry?
Tragedies propel changes to our building codes. As changes following the Champlain Towers collapse are considered, other changes to our building codes should also be considered. Specifically, the consequences of climate change (fires, floods and drought) can be as tragic as a building collapse.
The glazing industry can have a major role in ensuring the energy efficiency of our existing building stock. Consider this: buildings account for approximately 40 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. Windows built of monolithic glass in metal frames were very common before 1960. These types of windows are horribly energy-inefficient but can last for 100 years or more. Unless these types of windows are replaced with insulating glass units, this can result in an extraordinary waste of energy, especially considering that 70 percent of all buildings in at least 30 cities throughout the U.S. were built before 1960. However, even if monolithic glass windows are replaced with IGUs, those IGUs will lose their argon gas fills over time, and seals will eventually fail.
This posits an important question: should post‐occupancy inspections of buildings include windows?
The tragedy of the Champlain Tower collapse demonstrates the importance of regular post-occupancy inspections. It’s clear that significant energy can be saved and the pace of climate change slowed by including windows in any post-occupancy inspections or other building code changes that may result from this tragedy.