FL Bill Calls for Mandatory Structural Inspections
Just as Hurricane Andrew in 1992 pushed Florida legislators to address dated building codes and inspection regulations, last year’s collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside has shed light on the state’s need to raise its standards regarding the inspection and maintenance of coastal high-rises.
In a new Florida Senate bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R-Orange Park), the legislation seeks to require mandatory building inspections for all apartment and condo buildings taller than three stories and larger than 3,500 square feet.
More specifically, the bill intends to:
According to reports, milestone inspections are defined as being required once a building reaches 30 years old and every 10 years thereafter. For structures within three miles of a coastline, the legislation would also require milestone inspections at age 20 and every seven years after that.
These reports are then to be made available to all unit owners and to potential buyers by their respective condo boards. The legislation also allows local governments to impose timelines and penalties related to inspections.
SB 1701 was filed early last month and has since been favorable by community affairs and regulated industries. The bill is currently under review and is expected to go into effect on July 1.
Champlain Towers Background
The complex was built in 1981 by late developer Nathan Reiber and Nattel Construction, which is listed as inactive in state records. Since the collapse, media outlets and the City of Surfside have uncovered documents surrounding the structure’s condition. According to a 2018 engineering report from Morabito Consultants, the condominium had “major structural damage” to its concrete structural slab below the pool deck that needed “extensive repairs.”
At the time of the collapse, consultants also acknowledged that the building was in the early stages of a three-year renovation plan, which had started with roof work about six weeks prior.
More recently publicized, The Palm Beach Coast reported that condo owners of Champlain Towers South delayed repairs as work would cost more than $15 million. Eventually, the association imposed major assessments, and according to city records, the building had undergone $9 million in incomplete repairs before the collapse.
Although the new legislation is taking a step in the right direction, reporters point out that there is nothing in state law that requires condo associations to assess their members to pay for the work to fix structural problems—an issue that could come with a price tag of millions of dollars, as seen with Champlain.
Around 1:30 a.m. on June 24, part of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida was reported to have collapsed. Made of up of three buildings, the towers were each 12 stories tall and contained 342 units.
That same day, more than 80 rescue units were reportedly on the scene. By Sunday, 35 victims were pulled from the structure with two more pulled from the rubble. Eleven of them were treated for their injuries.
A state of emergency was also declared on the day of the collapse, which allowed the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to coordinate relief efforts at the scene, which also involved containing a fire within the debris. The following Saturday, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett turned their attention to the “sister building” to the tower that fell, noting that it was built with the same team. Residents in Champlain Towers North began being aided by FEMA to find temporary housing.
Crews also reported that day that the fire had been diminished.
That Sunday, heavy equipment was sent to the scene to help manage the shifting debris after rescuers dug a 125-foot-long trench (20 feet wide and 40 feet deep) to add to the around-the-clock excavation effort.
In later reports, it was determined that the partial collapse had resulted in the death of 98 people.
NIST Investigation Plans
In August, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology announced its selection of a team of technical experts to investigate the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South.
The investigation team is headed by Judith Mitrani-Reiser, Associate Chief of the Materials and Structural Systems Division in NIST’s Engineering Laboratory. In her role, Mitrani-Reiser will lead the development and coordination of statutory processes for making buildings safer.
Glenn Bell, Co-Director of the safety organization Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures, and Co-Founder of the American Society of Civil Engineers' Technical Council on Forensic Engineering, has been assigned to serve as the team’s associate lead.
Other team leads and their projects include:
Throughout the investigation, the team is slated to provide regular updates on its progress, which will include public meetings with the National Construction Safety Team Advisory Committee, annual reports to Congress and progress reports. However, the NIST reports that it will not issue preliminary findings or conclusions before publishing a draft report for public comment.
In early investigations of the collapse, the Miami Herald brought to light that the 12-story condominium tower had had multiple, extensive structural flaws present since the beginning of the building’s life—about 40 years.
Reportedly, the plans that came from a firm that no longer exists specified structural columns that were too narrow to accommodate the necessary amount of rebar to support the building. This meant that contractors had to choose between inadequately attaching floor slabs to supports or putting extra steel into columns that were too small.
Most experts weighing in on the matter chose the latter, which is a recipe for air pockets that accelerate corrosion.
Among the speculation that was looking at how a partial collapse of a patio could have brought down part of a 12-story building, The Washington Post also brought together engineers, construction plans and a computer simulation to come to two main scenarios.
First, if the deck initially collapsed where it joined the building’s facade, that could have overloaded the already-thin columns, causing them to buckle. Second, if the deck remained attached to the columns as it kept collapsing, that would have caused the tugging and twisting on the columns and the surrounding beams, causing them to fall.
Regardless of the final cause, building codes and inspections are already being reformed—with some Miami engineers saying that they have been evaluating 30-50 properties a week.
The Champlain Towers South investigation will be the fifth investigation NIST has conducted using authorities granted by the 2002 National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act. The Act reportedly gives NIST and its team the primary authority to investigate the site of a building disaster; access key pieces of evidence such as records and documents; and collect and preserve evidence from the site of a failure or disaster.
In addition, the Act also calls for NIST to issue reports and make recommendations to improve building codes and standards.
The NIST investigation into the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South is projected to take years to complete.
Towards the end of 2021, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Champlain Towers South victims and family members, alleging that the construction of a neighboring luxury building is what triggered the deadly collapse.
While the collapse has triggered multiple federal and state investigations, in addition to various lawsuits, the most recent allegation was filed as part of an existing case in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court that involves the planned sale of the Champlain Towers property to benefit victims.
The nine defendants include developers of Eighty Seven Park, an engineering firm, the Champlain Towers South condo association and a Miami law firm.
Champlain Towers, the lawsuit claims, “was an older building in need of routine repairs and maintenance, but it was not until excavation and construction began on the luxury high-rise condominium project next door” that the building became unsafe.
The document further explains that the excavation, pile driving and other construction work at Eighty Seven Park between 2016 and 2019 caused vibrations that weakened the structure. The suit also alleges that groundwater had been funneled from the new building to the Champlain Towers property basement after developers bought a small road separating the two.
While the 169-page document does not cite a specific amount for the damages, attorneys believe the number could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.