#16: What Do We Now Know About the Surfside Building Collapse?

It's too early to attribute one cause to the tragic building collapse in Florida that killed 97 people in June, but it will change coastal apartment living in climate-vulnerable areas. Here's why.

PRESSED FOR TIME?

The Surfside building collapse on June 24th, 2021 killed 97 people, and will take years for forensics to understand the cause to the detail victims and their families deserve. Two questions are worth asking, even with all the sensitivities of the tragedy: (i) do we make too many assumptions about the safety of buildings in many climate-vulnerable coastlines; and (ii) what are the benefits and tradeoffs when residents sit on boards and make decisions on the life cycle investing of their building? The answer to both is complex, but important.

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WARNING: This newsletter discusses a fatal event, and includes an optional link for the surveillance video of the collapse. Readers can view at their discretion. Real people were affected, and to respect their grief and search for answers, this issue draws only on engineering findings and legal commentary current as of August 2021, and/or information already reported in respected national media outlets.

WHAT HAPPENED?

At around 1:30am on June 24th, 2021 a portion of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story condominium in Surfside, Florida, near Miami Beach, collapsed. If you have not seen surveillance footage of the the moment the building fell and believe it would help in your understanding of the event, a link is here. Champlain Towers South was built in 1981, along with a near-identical structure, Champlain Towers North.

The oceanfront tower was constructed of steel-reinforced concrete, and sat atop an underground parking area that extended below the adjacent common area that residents called the pool deck.

In the minutes leading up to the collapse, residents from nearby buildings heard a loud sound and a section of the pool deck fall away into the parking area below; for this reason, the leading theories all suggest the final collapse was part of a series of structural events that started small and led to large failures.

Inspection reports from 2018 noted major structural damage to the concrete slab around the pool deck. The issue was that rainwater on the pool deck could pool on the concrete slab, and with nowhere to go on properly sloped drains, it lingered and moved into the pores of the slab itself. The rain kept moving down into the parking area, and also slowly began deteriorating the reinforced concrete structure itself.

It’s important for an international audience to understand that the 136-apartment building was collectively managed by a condo board association with many residents as its members. Over many years, there were meetings where residents raised issue with different parts of the building, and experts presented reports with insights and recommendations.

Problems with the building were not news to the people who lived there.

A contractor told the Miami Herald that he’d come to look at the area under the pool just two days earlier, and had seen corroded rebar and cracks in the concrete, as well as standing water. A building employee had told him that the building pumped out so much water that the pump motors had to be replaced every two years.

A 2018 engineering report, commissioned ahead of the building’s required forty-year recertification process, found ‘major structural damage’ under the pool-deck area. This April, the condominium-association president sent a letter to residents noting that, in the two and a half years since the report was issued, the situation had become ‘significantly worse.’

What is most striking about the letter, though, is the association president’s insistence that none of it should have been news to the residents—the issues, she wrote, had been ‘discussed, debated, and argued for years’ (That claim will likely be contested in court; several surviving residents have already filed lawsuits).

All that was left to address was a $15m assessment to pay for the needed repairs, with owners being asked to pay between roughly $80,000 for one-bedroom units to $336,000 for the penthouse. Yes, that’s a lot of money. In words that could echo through every climate-vulnerable community in the world, the president wrote near the end of her letter: ‘A lot of this work could have been done or planned for in years gone by […] But this is where we are now.’

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED, AND COULD IT HAPPEN AGAIN?

It does appear that the sister building Champlain Towers North, did have some of the same issues identified and sought to remedy them with greater speed. With such a focus now on building standards after such a tragic event, hopefully it is not repeated.

The problem is all the ingredients are there for this to happen again. The Saturday after the collapse, Daniella Levine Cava, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, announced an ‘emergency audit’ of residential buildings that are forty or more years old in her jurisdiction. The audit identified 469 multifamily buildings that are of particular safety concern. Twenty-four of those buildings are at least four stories high; two are eighteen stories high. 

Tragedies are usually part of many separate factors coinciding. Subsidence has occurred in a lot of coastal Florida. It’s possible from early photos that not as much reinforcing steel was used as there should’ve been from the original drawings, particularly in the column to slab connections around the pool. Construction was happening in a nearby site. There will be discussions around inspection standards, and corruption, and liability, but what is one of the main underlying causes? Saltwater and concrete.

WATER AND CONCRETE IS BAD?

For better or worse, concrete is one of the most ubiquitous building materials of the modern world. But it has vulnerabilities.

Have you been on holiday and walked past an ageing part of a harbour, similar to the image above? Salt-laden air from the sea can carry chloride ions toward inland structures. When these chloride ions saturate the concrete, they accelerate degradation.

That first stage is like a concrete-eating exercise that reaches the steel and does the same, but worse. Corrosion doesn’t merely weaken the steel, it causes it to expand in volume, creating pressure inside a reinforced concrete structure. Eventually the corrosion can reach a point where the pressure is too much. In the civil engineering world, this is referred to as delamination.

Shouldn’t we just look for these images in our buildings, and raise alarm when we see them? The problem is it’s not as simple as knowing rainfall is rising, and concluding older buildings are at risk. The damage to the pool deck found in the 2018 inspection report is severe, but not an indication of an imminent collapse of the adjacent building by itself. We don’t know how much deterioration occurred between 2018 and 2021, but it would be a brave structural engineer to recommend evacuation of an entire building based on the 2018 photos alone.

Our built environment crumbles, and ages. That’s a part of investing in life cycles, and repairing and improving when needed. We walk past small sections of decay all the time in our cities: knowing when it’s part of a long, slow process and something of immediate danger is something our eye doesn’t train us to know.

Each forensic team is trying to answer different questions, but many pieces of concrete retrieved from the site will provide clues over time.

WHO DECIDES WHAT’S AT RISK?

The other major issue from this disaster is the question of what did the condo board association know, and when did they know it. Made up of residents, condo association boards take care of the mundane but also important and costly repairs.

The level of maintenance performed by a condo building varies from condo to condo and is typically dependent on the association. This is a major cause for concern: people don’t know what they’re living in, and new purchasers are never sure of the power dynamics of a condo board before they buy. Everything about maintenance is a struggle, and typically ordinary people in a building have little expertise in evaluating contractors and managing timelines.

Do ordinary residents know the gravity of their responsibility? Even while doing work such as concrete restoration and repair, there will likely be issues that engineers can’t visually see or access without the use of x-ray technology. What condo board argues for an x-ray inspection out of their own pocket, and how happy are other residents to pay for this detail in ordinary times?

And what about the size of the Champlain Towers South sinking (or reserve) fund, and the conversation that might’ve taken place in the building when $88,000-$366,000 assessments were required to repair the works?

Something we don’t discuss enough is that apartment living is effectively a capital ‘lock-in’ event: you buy, and have enormous wealth stored in the asset, but your ability to influence ongoing expenses is limited.

If slow onset building erosion makes living in the property more expensive, and potential buyers learn this, they have the opportunity to self-select out of the investment in a way you don’t. The looming reality for many building resident groups is to either have the hard conversation and begin putting aside a lot more funds for the inevitable problems, or at least be straight with people about the capital involved.

At Champlain Towers South, the volunteer condo board was doing the right thing by following the priority list for work generated by external experts. The roof was prioritised due to the start of the hurricane season on June 1, and was underway when the collapse occurred.

WHY DOES IT HAVE IMPLICATIONS FOR A CLIMATE AND MONEY AUDIENCE?

There are several reasons why an event like the Surfside collapse should be in our mental models:

  • What’s the price of moving fast? Decades into a statewide population boom, Florida standards are uneven and poorly enforced, with gaps for older construction. If you live in Surfside, Florida or Surfer’s Paradise, Australia or even Southbank, London, it’s always worth asking what the long-run implications are of a construction boom period where developers have high financial incentive to complete a building and move onto the next.

  • Value dilution can occur by proximity. Research shows non-floodplain properties see insurance costs rise after a nearby flood, showing that damage to infrastructure and loss of myriad services are a factor for properties in proximity. For this context, there’s every reason to suggest it will be harder to sell condo apartments in and around the Surfside collapse site for the next few months, and certainly the case if the property is of a similar construction vintage.

  • You can’t ‘time the market’ on climate change. More buyers look reluctant to buy condos in older buildings located on the ocean’s edge out of concern that a building may have some of the same issues as the one in Surfside, leaving owners to sell at a steep discount or take their property off the market. In the medium term, insurance companies may decide to reprice their policies for oceanside condominiums, raising the cost of living there and likely decreasing their value. A Surfside seller can’t take a time machine back and sell their condo in early 2021 before the disaster, this is the new and ongoing reality when a new risk is better understood and priced in.  

  • The standard is never fixed. Just because a building passes a regulatory inspection doesn’t mean everything’s OK. Building codes were designed for buildings that were designed prior to many of our current weather conditions. It’s a generation-to-generation upgrade process. Climate change in Florida will approach a point at which even the best-constructed buildings are under threat. 

A FINAL THOUGHT: WHY NOT US?

When the rescue operation was just starting, Charles Burkett, the mayor of Surfside told CBS News: ‘Buildings like this don’t fall down in America.’ His words, with their implicit appeal to the nation’s exceptionalism, sounded almost plaintive.

We’ve mentioned in prior issues that one of the most basic ideas, and challenges of climate change is that research repeatedly shows people can believe climate change is real, will affect wealth and livelihoods, but don’t draw the correlation it will affect them.

If water isn’t diverted, it erodes and destroys things we take for granted, like sturdy buildings. That’s nature. Ultimately, when we live in a fixed world, we can easily forget people and firms can adapt with a speed buildings can’t. We don’t know why this building fell down, but we know that others will. And giving thought to the capital implications of even the unlikeliest scenarios isn’t a bad idea.

(Not so) Optimistically (this time),

Owen C. Woolcock


3 Questions I Am Asking Myself This Week

1.  The state of Arizona has apparently been in drought since 1994. With the latest droughts unfolding in much of the western United States, how many are beginning drought stretches likely to persist for years or even decades?

2. Mathematician Andrew Wiles reflecting on the patience involved in solving puzzles, this quote could easily apply to climate science and decarbonisation too:

3. Hurricane Ida, which is slowly approaching the U.S. coast, discharged 2,345 lightning events between 8:45 and 9:30 ET this morning, or just about 1 lightning discharge every second.

If You Read Or Listen To One Thing This Week

Twitter Link: Large storms washed away sand on a well-known Australian beach, and revealed stone carvings etched from prior storms that people hadn’t seen in decades.