After the tragic partial collapse of a condominium building in Surfside, Florida, it’s time to rethink how we maintain our built environment
By Nagesh Goel
As a professional inspection and testing agency, we are often hired to complete in-depth inspections on infrastructure like bridges, transportation stations, and other structures. While inspection is a critical process during the construction of infrastructure, periodic mandatory inspection requirements of residential buildings are largely forgotten.
Based on the negligence we have seen in the case of the Harbor Cay Condominium (March 27, 1981) and Champlain Towers South (June 24, 2021) that collapsed in Florida, there is an urgent need for greater testing and inspection—as well as mandatory action and repair—of all infrastructure, including those buildings in which we live and work. Currently, there is no routine inspection for residential buildings other than what occupants or maintenance staff happen to see. Environmental damage, aging, and daily wear and tear can have a long-term adverse impact on a structure. Testing and inspection are essential to maintaining a building’s integrity—and ensuring public safety.
The importance of inspection and testing
According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), every two years a bridge must be inspected. Every five years, larger facilities such as refineries must be inspected to ensure there is no deterioration. Every state’s Department of Transportation follows inspection protocol for countless infrastructure and structures. There are protocols in place for infrastructure, so why aren’t other types of buildings inspected regularly as well?
In the case of the Florida tragedy, the building was inspected by a reputable engineer who reported imminent and significant repairs. Because the repairs were deemed too costly, they were postponed. But repairs that are serious in scope should not be optional, they should be mandatory to ensure the safety of all.
Reporting of building issues should be submitted to the local building authority in the municipality, who in turn must enforce it. Unless the repairs are made, the authority would be forced to evacuate the building. Whether it’s every five years or ten, there has to be some interval where all buildings, including residential, are inspected.
Standardized inspections for all structures must be in place. While there is significant variability between structures, there are common elements as well. We must identify how these elements must be checked, at what intervals, what features of the building the inspections will look at and check for, and exactly how the inspections are done. For all structures, there must be some uniform aspect for inspection. There is also the question of what must be contained in the inspection reports—with an onus on making the repairs and improvements in a timely manner.
When it comes to creating a uniform inspection criterion, engineers, and design teams, supported by an experienced special inspection agency, are best positioned to know what to check for to ensure safety and integrity. This standardization will provide a plan forward and facilitate the essential inspection of aging structures.
Communication of report results is essential as well. Reports must go to the engineer of record and a copy to the municipal board. The engineer of record must be empowered to flag it in terms of level of severity. Whether structural problems need immediate action or not, there should be no confusion regarding next steps. It should be an obligation of every building owner to take action if they are structurally compromised.
Positive change for a safer world
Inspection agencies can help governments and communities define what needs to be inspected, articulate the process, and develop a framework so there is a standardized, repetitive way of inspecting and testing existing properties and structures. Without a national standard on periodic inspection of buildings, the level and extent of inspections are left up to each municipality and this is where things can go wrong.
Establishing inspection and testing protocol for routine evaluation is essential in maintaining building integrity. Let’s not wait for another disaster to make inspection and testing local a part of a safer world.
Nagesh Goel is the president and co-founder of Atlas Evaluation & Inspection Services (AEIS) providing inspection, testing, certification, failure analysis, engineering and material research services for infrastructure projects with an emphasis on welding metallurgy and non-destructive testing.