Surfside condo collapse: Investigations reveal original building challenges

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Both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have published extensive investigative reports into the initial design and construction of the Champlain Towers condo that collapsed in Surfside on June 24, killing 98 people and causing an estimated $1 billion in damages.

The reports provide a disturbing picture, indicating engineering errors, poor oversight, and lax enforcement of building code regulations. Most of the individuals involved in the original construction have died, or are extremely old.

Among the irregularities: Even as the building was under construction, the developers pushed to add an additional penthouse floor to the two towers (one is still standing), despite the fact that the additional height was not allowed in the town’s building regulations and hadn’t been mentioned when the project was planned and obtained its building permits.

The application to go higher was almost unheard-of for an ambitious development whose construction was already well underway. The builders had not mentioned the added stories in their original plans. It was not clear how much consideration they had given to how the extra floors would affect the structures overall. And, most galling for town officials, the added penthouses would violate height limits designed to prevent laid-back Surfside from becoming another Miami Beach.

At one point, the town building department issued a terse stop-work order. But records show that in the face of an intense campaign that saw lawyers for the developers threaten lawsuits and argue with officials deep into the night, the opposition folded — and the developers got their way.

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, described “rampant corner cutting” in the original building design and construction.

The people who oversaw its planning and construction some 40 years ago made cost-saving choices that generally met the building codes of that era but may have created long-term safety risks, a Wall Street Journal investigation found.

They skipped waterproofing in areas where saltwater could seep into concrete, the available evidence indicates. They put the building’s structural slabs on thin columns without the support of beams in some places. They installed too few of the special heavy walls that help keep buildings from toppling, engineers say, features that could have limited the extent of the collapse. And they appeared to have put too little concrete over rebar in some places and not enough rebar in others, design plans and photos of the rubble indicate.

The investigations suggest the long-term and hidden dangers that can occur when engineers, municipal officials, suppliers and contractors take shortcuts or “cheat” the building inspection and code systems to save money, speed up the job, or simply to make the project more profitable. Everything may seem okay, and the work is completed and the builders move on to their next projects. But disaster could be looming four or five decades later.

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