Condo Building That Collapsed Was 40 Years Old and Set for Repairs

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U.S.|Collapsed condo was about to begin corrosion repairs.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/24/us/collapsed-miami-beach-condo-corrosion-repairs.html

The 12-story condo building that partially collapsed near Miami early Thursday morning was about to undergo extensive repairs for rusted steel and damaged concrete, an attorney involved in the project said Thursday.

Kenneth S. Direktor, a lawyer who has represented the association of residents at the Champlain Towers South building, said an engineer had identified the needed repairs in order for the building to meet structural standards as part of a recertification process for buildings that are 40 years old.

“They were just about to get started on it,” Mr. Direktor said in an interview.

Mr. Direktor said he has seen nothing to suggest that Thursday’s collapse had anything to do with the issues identified in the engineering review. He said any waterfront building of that age would have some level of corrosion and concrete deterioration from exposure to ocean salts that can penetrate structures and begin rusting steel components.

If there had been anything to suggest that a collapse was possible, Mr. Direktor said, the process would have been handled much differently.

“What everyone is going to have to wait for is the results of a thorough engineering investigation,” said Mr. Direktor, who emphasized that the building association was focusing now on helping find survivors and on supporting families.

Government requirements in many parts of South Florida require recertification reviews after 40 years in order to ensure the integrity of older buildings. Anticipating the recertification process at the Champlain Towers South building, which opened 40 years ago, managers had been preparing over the past year for possible repairs, Mr. Direktor said. In recent weeks, he said, the building had started undergoing roof repairs.

Mr. Direktor said engineers had a good idea of where the building needed restoration, but the extent of corrosion is often not clear until crews begin the work.

Charlie Danger, who retired as Miami-Dade County’s building chief seven years ago and helped strengthen Florida’s building codes after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, said that the county began requiring that structural engineers recertify buildings at the 40-year mark after a federal building collapsed in downtown Miami in 1974, killing at least six people.

With buildings close to the ocean, one of the concerns is that improperly protected rebar may rust and lead to concrete spalling, Mr. Danger said.

“If it was a structural failure, what you want is for the inspection to turn up those issues in time to do the work,” he said.

Building inspectors also tend to worry about unpermitted remodeling inside a high-rise unit that might result in the elimination of a structural support column. “If you cut a structural column, your building is coming down,” Mr. Danger said.

One surviving resident at the Champlain Towers complex, Raysa Rodriguez, said tenants have also been wondering about whether impacts from construction on a neighboring complex could have played a role in the collapse. Ms. Rodriguez said the Champlain Towers complex had been shaking from tremors during the construction that was completed last year.

Kobi Karp, an architect whose firm has worked on a series of prominent buildings in Surfside and Miami Beach, said the way the building collapsed — and the fact that it was only 40 years old — suggested a possible internal failure. He said that might have been caused by deterioration at the point where a horizontal slab of the building meets a vertical support wall, which could lead one of the building’s floors to suddenly fall, bringing the rest of the building with it.

That deterioration, Mr. Karp said, could have either happened slowly, such as over the last few years, or more suddenly if someone unintentionally damaged the structure of the building, such as while remodeling. He said there would have been signs of the structural weakening, like a crack in a wall or floor tiles, but residents may have missed or dismissed the signs, particularly in a condo where many people spend part of the year elsewhere.

Inspectors carrying out the recertification process would be looking for those kinds of flaws as well as rust and other signs of damage, he said.

“The 40-year certification is like a checkup,” he said. “But this is like if I’m 40 years old and in good shape and suddenly I have a massive heart attack and die. We need to find out what happened to cause that heart attack.”

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An advertisement for the Champlain Towers that appeared in the Miami Herald in 1980.

When the Champlain Towers project was proposed in the late 1970s, people were flocking to South Florida and developers were looking to build larger complexes to accommodate demand, said Daniel Ciraldo, the executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League.

Advertisements in The Miami Herald in 1980 touted the Champlain Towers as “elegant condominium residences” that could be had for as little as $148,000.

“Your ultimate comfort has been anticipated: saunas, heated pool, television security system, valet parking and much more,” one ad said. Some of the building’s more than 136 units have recently sold for more than $1 million.

Atorod Azizinamini, an engineering professor at Florida International University, said it would take some time to collect all the necessary information to determine the cause of the collapse. That process will likely involve taking samples of concrete and steel, looking at corrosion, inspecting the foundation of the building and doing modeling to simulate the forces that may have contributed to the collapse.

Mr. Azizinamini recalled the Silver Bridge collapse over the Ohio River in 1967 as an event that triggered more frequent inspections of U.S. bridges. He said it might be time to pursue more regular inspections of high-rise buildings.

“We need to approach inspection differently,” he said.

Patricia Mazzei and Alexandra Petri contributed to this report.

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