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Buildings Buckle Under Winter's Wrath

Friday, February 20, 2015

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Homes, businesses and dozens of other structures in the Northeastern U.S. are grappling with roof failures and other structural threats and damage amid a winter of record snowfalls.

In Massachusetts alone, there have been 74 reported roof collapses, partial collapses, or major structural issues since Feb. 9, according to state officials.

roof collapse

Weeks of heavy snowfalls have caused roofs to buckle in the Northeast.

Many other incidents of structural damage have not been reported, according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

Experts warn that no building is immune from the stress of approximately eight feet of snow that has piled up atop roofs across New England, according to news reports.

Shopping Mall Collapse

One of the latest structural victims was a shopping plaza in Sutton, MA.

The mall’s roof collapsed Wednesday (Feb. 18) morning under the weight of tons of snow.

No injuries were reported. Officials had predicted that the roof would cave and had previously evacuated the mall.

Police called the collapse a “complete roof failure.”

“The loading on the roof was well over 100 pounds per square foot, which exceeds the building codes more than double,” building commissioner John Couture told a CBS News affiliate in Boston.

“It’s a shame, but it is what it is.”

roof collapse
Sutton Police

The roof of a shopping plaza in Sutton, MA, failed Wednesday under the heavy weight of snow. The collapse was expected.

The mall owner was reportedly prepared for heavy snowfall, with shoveling crews and roof cleaners, but they ran out of time, according to Sutton Police.

Businesses affected by the collapse included an Edible Arrangements store, liquor store, nail salon and dentist office, according to CBS Boston.

This February is the snowiest month on record in Boston, with 60.7 inches so far.

Apartment Buildings Cave-In

In New Hampshire, two partial collapses at an eight-building apartment complex in Portsmouth have displaced more than 500 residents.

The first collapse at the Patriots Park Apartments happened at 1:15 a.m. Sunday (Feb. 15), and the building was evacuated; the second partial collapse occurred about 10 a.m. Sunday on another building, the Associated Press reported.

After consulting with an engineering firm and the city’s building inspector, the property manager decided to evacuate all of the complex’s residents, reports said.

An estimated 215 families must live in temporary shelters or hotels until repairs can be completed, reports note.

Meanwhile, two school buildings in Epping and Newton were evacuated Monday (Feb. 16) because of concerns about the amount of snow on the roof.

Cracks were appearing in the walls, reports related.

The area has seen about 55 inches of snow in less than a month, reports say.

Heavy Problem

Repeated snowstorms compact snow already on roofs and turn it into ice, which weighs about eight times more than snow, a professor of structural engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology told CBS News.

“A cubic foot of snow that weighs about 8 pounds becomes a 64-pound cubic block of ice,” said Garrick Goldenberg.

Snow piled on roofs can also act as a sponge, absorbing additional sleet and rain that fall.


Snow removal is recommended as soon as possible after a snowfall.

Snow removal is recommended as soon as possible after a storm.

Flat-roofed commercial buildings are most vulnerable to collapse, especially if they are not draining properly, according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

“Flat roof drainage systems should be kept clear to minimize the risk of excess ponding,” the agency notes.

However, snow removal from roofs can also present fall risks and electrical hazards if metal rakes come in contact with power lines, so caution should be exercised, officials note.

Fire and Ice

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, all eyes are fixed on a now-frozen medical center, which inspectors say is in danger of collapse.

On Monday, the Locust Medical Center was encased in ice following an early-morning fire, reports said.

Building encased in ice

A frozen medical center in Philadelphia is in danger of collapse.

Due to the bitter cold temperatures, water blasted to fight the 4:45 a.m. fire froze almost immediately.

The city’s Licenses and Inspections Department has surveyed the center and deemed it “dangerous,” a spokesman told media outlets Wednesday.

If the building’s owner doesn’t demolish the structure in the next 10 days, the city will step in, the official said. The building’s owner told an NBC News affiliate that he planned to take down the building as soon as possible.

The medical center housed doctors’ offices and other medical facilities.

The winter weather siege is scheduled to continue for the region. Meteorologists say more snow, rain and ice are heading to the Northeast over the weekend and into early next week.


Tagged categories: Access; Accidents; Commercial Buildings; Commercial Construction; Maintenance + Renovation; North America; Roofing materials

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/23/2015, 10:10 AM)

This has to be taken out of context: “A cubic foot of snow that weighs about 8 pounds becomes a 64-pound cubic block of ice,” - it's a physical impossibility. It would take EIGHT cubic feet of snow to become a 64-pound block of ice. Compressing the snow already in place doesn't add any weight to the roof. Adding more snow/ice adds more weight to the roof. Compressing the snow makes it denser, but the weight stays the same.

Comment from H. J. BOSWORTH, (2/23/2015, 12:55 PM)

Tom, Once the snow melts and becomes water and then re-freezes it is then 'ice' and can easily be 62.4 #/ cu-FT. Any mixture of ice and snow, and compacted / packed snow - will weigh more than the fluffy snow.

Comment from Sarah Geary, (2/24/2015, 8:23 AM)

I think we've run into the "which weighs more? A pound of feathers or a pound of bricks?" scenario here. I think the article is trying to convey that a cubic foot of snow is much lighter than a cubic foot of ice, not that a cubic foot of snow could ever melt and refreeze into a cubic foot of ice. It would, indeed, take 8 cubic feet of snow at 8lb/cubic foot to melt into a 64lb/cubic foot block of ice.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/24/2015, 9:20 AM)

Sarah: Yep. That's why I started with the hypothesis it was somehow taken out of context.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (2/24/2015, 12:03 PM)

I don't think it is out of context....but rather a poor way of trying to convey the thought. The line before does talk about the "repeated snowstorms" adding to the snow already there and yes, compression, heating losses through the roof and any rain will significantly add to the existing load as the snow (8 lb/ft3) is gradually turned into ice (64 lb/ft3) and a light loading from the original foot of snow becomes a far heavier loading under a foot of ice. Great idea just poorly conveyed.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/25/2015, 8:18 AM)

M, I have to disagree. The compression adds nothing to the load on the roof. It's a distraction. Added frozen water (whether snow or ice) from additional storms adds to the load.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (2/25/2015, 11:07 AM)

You're right, Tom, and it's probably a matter of clarity....compression in and of itself doesn't add to the're just changing the volume for the same mass of stuff and that doesn't add to the load. But...without it, you can't get more frozen water into the same volume that a roof can contain. i.e. - If snow didn't compress and melt, you could might get away with couple of storeys of loose snow on top of a roof and not worry about it because the density would be too little to make much of a load and any wind would limit how much would stay on the roof. But when the snow compresses and melts/refreezes into ice, it permits far, far more mass to be retained on the roof, meaning higher loads and failures as more snow falls. The idea is correct (the compression/icing allows a higher loading as it will retain more mass for the same volume as more snow falls), but it's just a bugger to convey that clearly.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/26/2015, 8:30 AM)

M, agreed. Let me try some phrasing. "Snow compression and ice on the roof can allow a much heavier accumulation on the roof compared to regular snow. This heavier weight makes collapses much more likely."

Comment from M. Halliwell, (2/27/2015, 1:16 PM)

There we go, Tom! If the Wentworth guy had said that, it would have been far better :)

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