What Florida Condo Collapse Says About Building Safety

Property owners nationwide are nervous about the structural soundness of their buildings after a 12-story condominium partially flattened.
Search and rescue personnel sift through the rubble after the partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo buil

© Joe Raedle - Getty Images

Search and rescue personnel sift through the rubble after the partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building in Miami.

Property owners are on edge after a 12-story condo building mysteriously collapsed in the community of Surfside, Fla., leaving many wondering whether their buildings are structurally sound.

State and local officials continue to investigate why nearly 55 of the 136 units at the Champlain Towers South residential building flattened at around 1:30 a.m. Thursday. But scientists say there are risks of constructing buildings on shifting sands, such as on a barrier island like Miami Beach, particularly as sea levels rise, NBC News reports. That hasn't yet been determined to be the cause of the collapse, but shifting sands remain an “engineering challenge in the region,” NBC News notes.

The Surfside condo building was built in the early 1980s and had no known structural problems. The building recently underwent minor construction and roof work and was engaged in the 40-year safety recertification process, an inspection requirement by Miami-Dade County. The building had been well into the review, which is intended to ensure structural and electrical safety, according to the Miami Herald. “There’s no reason for this building to go down like this, unless someone literally pulls out the supports from underneath or they get washed out, or there’s a sinkhole or something like that,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said on NBC’s “Today” show. “It looks like a bomb went off, but we’re pretty sure a bomb didn’t go off.”

Florida has more sinkholes than any other state in the nation. But investigators say possible building flaws and maintenance mistakes are being investigated. As of Friday, four victims of the collapse were confirmed dead and more than 100 are missing. “Forty-year-old buildings don’t just collapse, and there’s a whole series of them lining up and down the coast,” Peter Zalewski, principal of Condo Vultures, a South Florida real estate market analysis company, told NBC News.

Americans have built about $3 trillion worth of property on barrier islands and coastal floodplains, according to the book The Geography of Risk by Gilbert Gaul. Climate scientists have long warned that barrier islands pose construction risks due to the land’s loose mixture of sand and mud, which can cause buildings to shift over time.

Due to the Surfside condo collapse, many other buildings of similar age will likely undergo analyses and inspections.

Structural engineers say there may be other reasons for the building collapse. Greg Batista, a structural engineer who worked on the building years ago, told CNN that concrete repair and a spalling problem can cause buildings to fall. Spalling is when part of the surface of the concrete peels or breaks. What’s more, the malfunction of just one column in a building is enough to bring an entire structure down, he adds.