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After Collapse: How to Prevent the Unthinkable

By Jeffrey Steele

The deadly partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Fla., has left multifamily property owners and operators with many questions: How could this have happened? How can it be prevented from occurring again? What role may climate change play in placing buildings like this one in jeopardy?

Jonathan Weislow, vice president of Miami-based owner’s representative Amicon, is not among those seeking to lay blame on a single trigger that might have precipitated the progressive structural failure.

“It is possible this event was an anomaly caused by a combination of isolated and/or long-term events,” Weislow told Multi-Housing News. “There was adjacent construction, a building in its 40th year pending recertification, reports of construction equipment on the roof, and reports the building had been settling consistently over time.”

In addition, there appeared to be awareness for years of drainage problems beneath the pool and in the parking structure below the building, said Kurt George, vice president of marketing and strategy for Fort Worth, Texas-based Property Damage Appraisers.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that the condo board association president wrote a letter in April imploring residents to pay an assessment to address serious structural problems in the building.

“The important lesson to take from this tragedy is that when structural red flags are raised, immediate action is prudent to save lives and avoid catastrophic outcomes,” George told MHN.

But the fact Champlain Towers South’s condo board had not acted on evidence of structural issues spotted three years earlier is not necessarily unusual, experts report. Newly-appointed condominium boards often inherit the challenges of the past from previous boards, Weislow said.

Frequently, the building is in need of immediate repair after years of neglect. The boards may find themselves needing to start mandatory remediation with little or no reserve funds. That leaves them with the need to assess residents to pay for the remediation. Often, that meets with resistance from unit owners.

“A natural inclination by the board may be to further postpone either all or a portion of the repairs,” added Wieslow. “While done with good intentions in an effort to appease the pushback from residents, this delayed method of management inevitably results in further damage to the property and the necessary project ends up costing more, taking longer and being more inconvenient years later.”

Multifamily buildings feature a complex intermix of elements that can include elevated pools, spas, showers, balconies, railings, parking garages and unit owner modifications.

“The interactions of these elements with one another offer so many different opportunities for failure,” Weislow said. “Constant utilization of all elements by residents may also make detection (of problems) much more difficult.”

LIKELY RESULTS

The Surfside catastrophe is likely to bring about a number of changes in the way buildings, particularly older buildings, are monitored and maintained. Among changes will be greater interest in emerging technologies available to make building inspections more comprehensive, said Eric Maribojoc, executive director of the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship at George Mason University School of Business in Fairfax, Va.

These technologies include the use of drones and robots to inspect difficult-to-reach areas and use of infrared light and ultrasound to scrutinize below building surfaces to uncover problems visual inspections might miss, he said. In addition, smart building technology, traditionally incorporated within new buildings, will increasingly be part of retrofits to older buildings.

“Retrofitting with smart technology can provide owners and operators with data they can act upon,” Maribojoc told MHN. “Sensor technology can gather data about the building operations that can include structural aspects.”

Another outgrowth will likely be greater consideration of how climate change is impacting the buildings. Owners and operators must be more mindful about how their local climate and weather conditions have changed compared to those typical when the building was constructed decades earlier.

“Most buildings are designed with external environmental conditions in mind,” Maribojoc added. “To the extent those conditions change, they have to be evaluated in terms of how the building is aging.”

An additional positive action that may result from the condominium collapse is a more proactive approach to preventive maintenance of real estate assets. Because boards and owners often defer systemic infrastructural issues in their buildings, a strategic and proactive property maintenance plan is advised. Such a plan may seem unnecessary and cumbersome, but it’s the best course of action by boards to mitigate risks associated with the buildings they manage, Weislow said.

BUILDING CHECKLIST
The tragedy of Champlain Towers South begs for the creation of a checklist building owners and operators can consult to avoid a repeat. Weislow suggested a list should consider every association and community is unique in its voting requirements and property needs.

“We always recommend a specialized expert be brought on to help strategize the complexities of the following initial steps,” he said.

Weislow and Maribojoc recommended the below points when building a checklist for your properties:

  • Ensure funds and resources are allocated to preventive maintenance, because deterioration can take place as soon as three years after building completion.
  • Review pool surfaces for delamination and follow manufacturer’s recommendations for maintenance and replacement. Failure to do so can lead to waterproofing failure.
  • Review façade for paint fading, cracking and stucco delamination. These can be signs of larger, systemic structural issues with the building façade.
  • Check areas beneath elevated planters on higher floors to ensure waterproofing membrane is holding up correctly. “We often see these areas beneath the planters to be in some of the worst condition on the property,” Weislow said.
  • Ensure expansion joints are properly maintained and changed out per manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Confirm equipment rooms, especially boiler or pool heater rooms, have appropriate ventilation and are being cleaned regularly.
  • If signs of puddling or inadequate drainage in garages, pool decks or any horizontal surface appear, it’s critical to have those areas inspected.
  • Keep up with new and emerging technologies for inspecting the building.
  • Educate boards and staff about real estate operations and maintenance, because they make final decisions.
  • Make older buildings smarter, to generate data that can help inform maintenance and repair decisions.