On June 24, Americans witnessed a devastating tragedy where, so far, 97 people lost their lives from the collapse of the Miami (Surfside) condo building, called the Champlain Towers South. What happened is something we wish never did.
As we mourn the tragic events, we now want answers as to how to prevent a building collapse like this from ever occurring again. Commercial real estate investors would be wise to learn a few things from this incident before investing in a tower.
What happened with the Surfside condo building
Almost a month after the devastating Surfside condo incident, the most pressing matter remains the cleanup. More than 22 million pounds of debris and concrete have been removed from the area, and cleanup work on the site is not completely done.
Determining why this happened is still ongoing. According to Building Integrity, a Florida structural engineering firm, there is no one cause as to why this happened; rather, it was a combination of many factors. In other words, the collapse was more along the lines of the-straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back scenario. Here are some likely problems:
- A 2018 report raised red flags about the Surfside building's structural integrity, specifically "abundant concrete cracking and spalling." (Spalling is where fragments of concrete are broken off.)
- Another problem cited in the report was "major structural damage" due to failed waterproofing below the pool deck. This was compromising the entrance drive and the planters.
- The report also stated a concrete slab that wasn't sloped downward was a "major error" regarding water drainage. The water was pooling instead of draining.
- The building and the land surrounding the building was subsiding, meaning the building was slowly sinking down into the earth over time. In this case, the building had been sinking 2 millimeters (less than an inch) per year since the 1990s. This makes for uneven settling, creating stress on the columns that hold up the building.
- The parking garage was regularly filling up with water. People reported seeing six inches or even a foot of water in the garage at times. The garage was located in the building's basement at the same level as the water table. In this type of scenario, even with a retaining wall, water can come in from any cracks or openings, and that was apparently happening. As the building was slowly sinking over the years, the water intrusion was worsening.
Note: Regular water intrusion should be a warning signal that further investigation by a structural engineer is warranted.
Why nothing was done
We can only speculate why no structural repairs were done after receiving the negative report. Maybe it was because no one likes to hear, let alone deal with, bad news, and some people hope it will just go away. This can be especially true when large sums of money are involved, as was the case here.
In order to correct all the water drainage issues found involves a significant output of cash, not to mention the logistics nightmare of getting all residents on board with a major overhaul of the building. Rather than deal with all that, life apparently continued on -- that is until it didn't.
The Millionacres bottom line
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a government agency, is currently conducting an investigation to identify, collect, and preserve evidence to determine the likely cause of the building collapse. Commercial real estate investors should stay tuned for more news on this, as this investigation is still in its early stages.