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1981 building collapse led to Florida's threshold inspection law for new construction

1981 collapse killed 11 and injured 23
Miami Building Collapse
Posted at 11:17 AM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 17:40:25-04

SURFSIDE, Fla. — As rescue workers continue to search the wreckage of Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida, the building codes in Florida are in the spotlight. One area that has been discussed in the immediate aftermath of the collapse is Florida’s threshold inspection law.

The law, contained in Section 553.71 of the Florida statutes, defines a threshold building as a building greater than three stories or 50 feet in height; or a building having an assembled occupancy that exceeds 5,000 square feet and has an occupancy content of greater than 500 persons. Any building that is a threshold building must have a threshold building inspector inspect the structural elements during construction to make sure everything follows the law/code.

According to the Florida Board of Professional Engineers, a threshold inspector performs the inspections and maintains logbooks of inspections and deficiencies. The inspector also reviews all inspection and testing reports. The FBPE said inspectors also keep communication between the owner, the structural engineer of record, the city or county, and the general contractor.

A local Tampa structural engineer who performs threshold inspections says the threshold inspection law creates an extra set of safety steps for assembly-type buildings.

“The intention behind them was to create an extra set of inspections done by an independent third party to ensure that the field conditions met, or were in compliance with the construction documents that had been reviewed and approved,” said Nick Bradford, a structural engineer for The Structures Group.

Florida lawmakers passed the threshold inspection law in the wake of another building collapse a little more than 40 years ago.

On March 27, 1981, a building under construction in Cocoa Beach, Florida, the Harbor Cay Condominium, collapsed as workers were pouring the concrete for the roof to complete the framework. Electricians, plumbers, and bricklayers were on the floors below when the building collapsed. In that collapse, numerous design errors were discovered that led to the disaster. 11 workers were killed and 23 were injured during the collapse.

According to a New York Times report from two days after the collapse, the company building Harbor Cay had 10 similar projects and they “have been designed on what is called the flatplate model, where slabs of poured concrete are supported by concrete pillars.” The Times continued saying, “Once a flaw develops in the flatplate design, collapse is virtually inevitable because each part is interlocked, according to building engineers.

The Champlain Towers in Surfside were being constructed in Surfside in 1981, the same year as the Harbor Cay Condominium collapse.

Champlain Towers were undergoing engineering inspections in recent months as the building was prepared for a 40-year certification. CNN reported that at the time of the collapse, the building was also undergoing work on its concrete roof, but “it’s unclear if that work was a factor in the collapse.”

A study in 2020 also showed Champlain Towers was sinking at a rate of about two millimeters a year between 1993 and 1999. According to CNN, the Florida International University professor who authored the study said the sinking alone likely wouldn’t cause the tower’s collapse, but it could have contributed to the disaster “if one part of the building moves with respect to the other, that could cause some tension and cracks.”

In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, local governments require 40-year recertification inspections. But that isn't the case for the rest of the state.

“Once you get beyond that point where everything’s built, the threshold or special inspection laws don’t really extend beyond that point,” said Bradford.

Once a building is constructed and passes its inspections, Bradford says inspections down the road are typically up to the owners discretion.

“I typically get called when someone says ‘I have a chunk of concrete fell off my balcony,’ or ‘I have a handrail that’s got all sorts of corrosion staining around it,’ or something failed and so they react with an inspection, an assessment, and some sort of repair,” said Bradford.

Bradford says the system is more reactive than proactive, and often times, insurance companies are the ones that prompt inspections.

“The insurance folks come along and they say, ‘well, we won’t insure your building unless you do updates,’” said Bradford.

But with his level of knowledge and years of practice, Bradford says the system we've got going typically works well, and catastrophic events are nearly unheard of.

“It’s extremely rare for us to go in and say ‘okay, we’ve got a collapse-level problem,’ or ‘we’ve got a global level problem’ that is more than sort of a localized concern,” said Bradford.

Much of that, he says, can be credited to proper maintenance and upkeep as a building remains occupied.