Paula Chin and Kathryn Farrell in Bricks & Bucks on June 30, 2021
The recent catastrophic collapse at the 13-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Fla., raises an unsettling question for New Yorkers: Could it happen here? Or are New Yorkers protected by the city’s Facade Inspection and Safety Program (FISP), formerly known as Local Law 11, which requires owners of buildings taller than six stories to inspect and repair their facades every five years?
Mandatory facade inspections are non-existent in Florida. In Miami-Dade County, where Surfside is located, residential properties larger than 2,000 square feet are required to do a “structural inspection,” which includes everything from the foundation and flooring to the walls, windows and roof, after 40 years, and every 10 years after that, says David Cohen, a Florida-based executive vice president at AKAM, a management company. “The engineer files a report to the owners’ association, which files it with the local municipality,” Cohen adds.
In 2018, a consultant urged Champlain South to repair crumbling concrete below the pool deck and cracked columns in the underground garage. But the engineer reportedly gave no indication that the structure, then 37 years old, was at risk of collapse.
Mandatory facade inspections on a five-year cycle “certainly make it more likely than not” that deep structural problems will get detected in a timely fashion, says Dane Barnes, a partner at the New York engineering firm Joseph K. Blum. Barnes was examining the condition of the brick facade on a Manhattan building when he discovered that an exterior wall was compromised. “I was evaluating the facade with a hammer, and the entire structural wall started vibrating, indicating a dangerous condition,” he says. “We evacuated everyone, put up temporary shoring, and are now replacing the structural brick masonry with new concrete block.”
However, regular FISP inspections are not a guarantee that a building is structurally sound. “The existing regulations don't specifically ask us to focus on the issues that I believe caused the collapse in Florida,” says Eric Cowley, president at Cowley Engineering.
Only vigilance by people who are regularly in the building will ensure that such problems get noticed and addressed. Earlier this year, shareholders in a Stamford, Conn., co-op urged the board to call Cowley. Shareholders in a line of apartments directly above the co-op’s garage had informed the property manager that they were hearing noises coming from below and seeing cracks inside their apartments. Cowley inspected the two-tiered, 80-space garage at the eight-story building and found that a load-bearing column was buckling – the result of groundwater migrating through the poured-concrete floor and corroding the steel inside the support column. A potential disaster was averted. “With events like this,” Cowley says, “we usually get a call because someone notices a bulge or something going on.”
Christine Checca, an account executive with FirstService Residential, agrees that it's important to stay vigilant. A sharp-eyed resident manager at an Upper West Side condo notified her about cracking in a sub-basement boiler room wall and around a support column; in the basement storage area, the floor was becoming concave. “We did a walk-through as a baseline and kept a close eye on things,” she says.
After more subtle changes were detected, an engineer was brought in. He discovered that the cracking stemmed from a stream underground and that underground waste pipes had corroded in the storage area. The combined repairs, which could have been stratospheric, cost about $204,000. The lesson, according to Checca: “Buildings speak to you. You have to listen and pay attention.”
And you have to listen especially closely to older buildings, says Stephen Varone, president of RAND Engineering & Architecture. “When you see settling, shifting or anything out of kilter,” he advises, “don’t assume it’s natural aging of a building.”
In the wake of the Champlain collapse, Howard Zimmerman, president of Howard L. Zimmerman Architects & Engineers, says he has been swamped with calls from jittery boards who want an engineer to perform a “comfort walk-through” of their building. “But I can inspect a building yesterday, and a month from now a crack can appear,” Zimmerman says. “I hate to sound trite, but it really is true that if you see something, you should just pick up the phone.”
Can a building collapse happen here? The answer is yes – if people are not vigilant. Or if they see something and fail to say something.
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