SURFSIDE, A RETROSPECTIVE LOOK NEARLY A YEAR LATER
By: Juan R. Cardenas
Nearly one year ago, Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, collapsed, killing 98 people.
The 136-unit condominium was constructed in 1981 at 8777 Collins Avenue, on soil that constituted “reclaimed” wetlands meaning that it used to be marsh and swamp before developers brought in dirt to compact the ground.
It was the first high-rise in the Town of Surfside, located near the mainland on a narrow island with saltwater on both sides. Prior to the construction of the condominium, the County had imposed a moratorium on any new development within the Town because of the Town’s decrepit sewer system. To facilitate approval of its plans for a 12-story building, the developer offered to pay the Town half the money it needed to build a new sewer system. The Town accepted the offer.
Later, the developer added a 13th-floor with penthouse units on the ocean side. That addition violated the Town’s height restriction, but the Town permitted the addition without any study about whether the foundation could bear the additional load from the penthouse floor. In the 1990’s, during a geological study of land subsidence in South Florida, a professor from Florida International University discovered that the building was sinking at irregular levels.
The high-rise had an underground garage, a rarity in Florida because of the water table. The roof over the garage was the pool deck. The slab that supported the pool deck also supported the first floor of the building.
The cause of the collapse of the building is under investigation by “NIST”, a federal agency called the National Institute of Standards and Technology; however, many other engineers have already concluded that the building fell because a large portion of the pool deck collapsed into the garage.
Why would the pool deck fail? Per an engineering report in 2018, it was designed and constructed without proper drainage; it was not adequately waterproofed; it was not adequately supported (a beam specified in the plans was never installed below); and it had been improperly modified by the Association over the years in multiple ways.
The Surfside building was right next to the beach, on the oceanside. The west side of the building was within walking distance of the Biscayne Bay. In this location, the building was always exposed to salt-spray. Salt is kryptonite to reinforced concrete structures because it induces corrosion of the embedded reinforcing steel, causing structural deterioration known as “spalling”.
Buildings exposed to salt, whether from the ocean, from de-icing chemicals, or because it was added to the concrete during construction (a practice which was discontinued in the late 1980’s but which continues to plague some older buildings) must always be protected using waterproofing materials and monitored closely so that the owner(s) of the building can promptly repair structural deterioration before the building becomes unsafe for occupancy.
While there has been a lot of focus on the pool deck as the initial failure, the collapse of the building is likely to be multi-faceted. Some factors were not within the control of the Board; others were.
The investigators are likely to uncover multiple defects in the original design and construction, especially with the pool deck. Irregular settlement of the building may also have been a contributing factor, as may have been the recent construction of an adjacent high-rise development (called 87th Park) that conducted deep excavation right next to the boundary line of Champlain Towers South. In a post-collapse lawsuit against that developer and all its service providers, the Association of Champlain Towers South generated a huge sum of money in settlement of a claim that alleged that the developer and its service providers breached its duty to protect Champlain Towers South from damage due to all the vibrations and piling activity that occurred when the developer built the 18-story skyscraper right next to Champlain Towers South.
All that excavation and piling caused multiple problems for Champlain Towers South. The Board of Champlain Towers South pursued complaints during the construction of 87th Park - which was finished in 2020 – that the receiver of Champlain Towers pursued after the collapse.
But the fact remains: Champlain Towers South was a building with pre-existing “sickness”.
The pool deck was originally constructed with a tiled finish on the concrete slab. That tile finish was the only nominal waterproofing. When water cascaded into the garage underneath, the Board reviewed proposed fixes. Rather than strip the tile to expose the slab so that it could be properly waterproofed, the Board, much to the later criticism of its engineering firm in 2018, approved the installation of a membrane on top of the tile and then covered this membrane with sand and concrete pavers.
Unfortunately, this membrane didn’t work very well. Worse, it added a significant load of weight to the pool deck slab.
Later, the Board approved the addition of palm trees to be planted within the planter boxes around the edge of the pool deck, adding hundreds and hundreds of additional pounds on top of the slab. According to multiple sources, the addition of those palm trees did not require a building permit, and, therefore, an engineer wasn’t involved in determining the bearing capacity of the slab to handle the weight of the trees.
After the collapse, many engineers have contended that the weight of these planter boxes was the initiating event that led to the tragedy. The deck underneath the planters had completely deteriorated due to water leakage and the pressure from expanding roots, and the planter boxes had deep and multiple cracks.
So, the “temporary fix” of the membrane didn’t work so well. The garage regularly experienced leaks of water. Floods as high as a foot and a half occurred inside. Water dripped and even cascaded down support columns, causing cracks and rust from the steel rods inside. The ceiling was a mess, full of active leaks, water stains, and even stalactites.
The record reflects that the Association regularly sealed the ceiling of the garage to plug all the cracks. This action was the equivalent of placing band-aides over open sores. It provided some temporary relief for the symptoms, but it didn’t do anything to address the problems with the pool deck above. Salt water, rainwater, and chlorinated pool water continued to penetrate the slab, causing a lot of visible deterioration.
There were also cracks in the pool deck above, especially in the planter boxes. These cracks would have developed over years, not weeks. With the 20-20 vision that hindsight provides us, post-collapse engineering analysts have wondered why no one suggested temporary shoring measures to augment support for the building within the garage. When the Board started the 40-year recertification process required under local law, it initiated a plan to address these issues, but it could not implement the plan because the Association lacked the funds in its reserve account.
A typical story of governance ensued, with one board resigning before a second board came in and was able to start the $15-million special assessment needed to fund the deferred remedial projects and to obtain a loan from a New Jersey based bank; however, all the delays in moving forward allowed ongoing deterioration which led to the collapse.
In short, the collapse was a perfect storm of feeble government, poor planning, lousy design, cost-cutting construction, zero 3rd party oversight, inattentive maintenance, and deferred repairs, all of which happened with an overlay of extremely difficult environmental conditions caused by poor soil, salt air, and water, water, water.
Again, with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, proper reserve fund studies, relying on the information within special and regular inspection reports, would have assisted the Board in its effort to set aside the money needed to complete the remedial work in a timely manner. Maybe.
In Virginia, there isn’t any 40-year recertification program, nor any mandatory structural inspections. Even after the partial collapse of a condominium in Alexandria (River Towers) in 2016 and the evacuation of multiple residents, we, as a state, don’t have any legal requirements to ensure structural integrity after a building is initially certified for occupancy.
A recent guideline, published by the Department of Professional and Occupation Regulation and adopted by the Common Interest Community Board in 2019, does not include any suggestions to Boards of higher-risk buildings, such as high-rise buildings or buildings of over 40 years of age, to hire a structural engineer to perform its reserve studies, nor is it required by the Virginia Code.
This shift to structural engineers as reserve fund study providers for higher-risk buildings would help reduce risk, as licensed structural engineers are required to regard their duty to public welfare as paramount. This means that they can’t notice an imminent structural or safety concern and simply report it to the client, as appears to have been the case in Surfside. They must ensure that action is taken to address the concern, such as reporting the unsafe condition to the local building officials.
Reserve fund studies aren’t the only solution. There are many forms of structural deterioration the study’s visual review cannot evaluate, such as wood-framed buildings and steel buildings that often have coverings over the structural components. Rebar within concrete can suffer corrosion, even without the presence of salt, which then can result in rapid progressive failure.
As such, Boards of condominium associations should exercise due diligence and authorize periodic inspections of balconies, cladding, parking garages, post-tensioning cables, and even electrical systems—as the building ages.
A good reserve fund study will set out the necessary inspections to conduct in the future, which the Association can then pay for from the reserve fund. Subsequent reserve fund studies can reference these evaluations to ensure funds are available in time to complete the required repairs.
Diligent boards will also avoid any activity that adds excessive additional load to a structural slab, whether in the form of adding more finishes, allowing large vehicles onto a suspended slab, or planting trees on top of a structural slab.
The hardest part of this topic is the understandable difficulty Boards face when confronting the need to implement fee increases to adequately support the reserve fund. Yet, delaying, deferring, or ignoring problems is a recipe for potential disaster.
Condominium Boards can avoid a catastrophe like the Surfside collapse; however, this process requires diligent oversight, good governance, attentive property management, special inspections of structural integrity and life-safety systems, and proper funding of their reserve account.