Cutting Edge Insights
with Dr. Lee

When Buildings Fall Down

A dark side of real estate investing, development, construction, and building science is what happens when structures fail.

The short story…people are hurt and many don’t survive.

That seems to be the case in the collapse of a condo building in Miami, Florida on 6/24/21.  As of this writing, 100 or more people remain unaccounted for.

Occurrences such as this are solemn and humbling…and once their devastating finality is considered, we are sickened when we reflect on the unimaginable grief of those even tangentially involved as well as that of their friends and families.

Upon hearing this news, I was perplexed – I knew that the State of Florida has one of the most stringent building codes and contractor licensure requirements in the country.

Indeed, shortly after that thought crossed my mind, I received an email from the International Code Council (ICC) stating the following:

“…Florida has one of the strongest building codes in the U.S., which is based on the International Codes. As noted in the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety’s Rating the States 2021 report, Florida is ranked number one among the 18 states along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts for building code adoption, enforcement, and contractor licensing.

The ICC went on to say, “In times like this, we are reminded of the vital role building safety professionals play in making sure these incidents are rare while ensuring safe and sustainable communities. Together we will help Florida recover, and we will look to the lessons of the past to help us prepare for a better future.”

Noted building scientist Joe Lstiburek, a principal at Building Science Corporation, has said,

“Buildings usually don’t fall down.  That’s why structural engineers are so boring.”

I agree with his first statement, but not his second.  I know several structural engineers, and I am good friends with two. I find them to be fascinatingly intelligent.  But with respect to ‘boring’, maybe it takes one to know one.

Although it may seem odd for a real estate developer, syndicator, and eye doctor like me to pontificate about structure, I go back to what Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki said:  (I’ve paraphrased)

“A good generalist is better than any specialist.”

What he meant by that was that a good generalist will not only know when a specialist is needed, he or she will already have a team assembled from which to pull a specialist for the unique problem at hand.

Why Buildings Fall Down

Structure is all about load paths.

The most obvious load path is one of dead and live loads; specifically, the weight of the building itself and its contents.

Other load paths that may or may not be pertinent to any specific building situation are wind load, snow load, rain load, seismic load, and soil bearing characteristics.  One remarkably interesting “load” or stress induced upon a structure is a harmonic resonance or “vibratory” load.  This concept has collapsed many bridges and has caused urgent repairs to affected buildings.

Think of “opera singer breaks glass with voice” when you wonder how that one works.  

I can’t find too many examples of building collapses in recent years.

Here are a few close calls, close to home:

-In Bay City, Michigan in 2014, a downtown building with a flat roof experienced clogged roof drains.  This caused many inches or maybe even feet of water to accumulate during summer storms.  The additional weight of all that water caused catastrophic failure of the building.  The roof wasn’t designed to carry 100,000 pounds (+/-) of water.  Fortunately, no one was present.  I gained a tenant, a college athletic conference, in one of my buildings while their former home was being rebuilt.

-In May 2020, a building under construction in Traverse City, Michigan partially collapsed because the masonry subcontractor failed to follow the engineer’s bracing plan.  4 injuries, no deaths.

-A friend of mine told me that he lost an entire set of roof trusses on a building under construction because they weren’t braced properly during a rogue wind.  Thankfully, no one was hurt.

The load bearing capacity of Mother Earth herself can be called into question. 

During construction of one of my builds in 2018, the entire length of the 176 foot south wall footing had to be dug 2 feet deeper and 4 feet wider and supported with crushed stone because the soil engineer of record found poor soil bearing capacity in that location.  This was probably a $30,000 stroke of bad luck.

Fortunately, it was only one wall and it could have been worse.

Had we been stupid and failed to follow good sense and construction principles, we would have had settling but not likely structural collapse.

But why would we proceed with something the wrong way after having been put on notice that there is a problem?

Florida is known for sinkholes.  Natural limestone bedrock, the deeper layers of Mother Earth that have a tremendous load-bearing capacity, are slowly being eaten away by the water.  Alternatively, underground cavities normally filled with water that helps bear the load from above, weaken when the water level falls…from synthetic processes – building, irrigation, lack of natural seepage due to excessive impervious surface above, etc. Both of the above-referenced processes are factors in Florida’s sinkhole problem.

Engineers had noted that the condo building that collapsed in Florida had been sinking into the earth at around 2 mm per year.

That doesn’t sound like much, but it can add up.  If there are several structural members that share a load, and one of them sinks but they all remain connected, the loads are now asymmetrically distributed and can cause failure because the design loads are exceeded.

Some have said, “That condo building stood for 40 years and it came down in 10 seconds.”  I couldn’t help but wonder, what is a good comparison to our lifetime when we compare 40 years to the age of Mother Earth?  The answer is 21.6 seconds.  Again, 40 years is to Mother Earth what 21.6 seconds is to a human.  Mother Earth had barely even been introduced to the building that had resided there for 40 years.

That creates perspective.

And it makes me thankful that I invest in, build, and develop residential and commercial light frame construction of 1,2, or 3 stories.

As you think about that, have a good thought and say a prayer for all those affected by this tragedy.  And for all those responsible for the structures that we call home.

Until next time,

Dr. Lee Newton

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