Fla. Building Collapse Triggers OC Inspection Questions

OCEAN CITY — Last week’s partial condo building collapse in South Florida provided an opportunity to research Ocean City’s building inspection process, and the takeaway is structural maintenance inspections are largely left to the building’s owners.

Last Thursday, half of a 40-year-old, 12-story condo building in Surfside, Fla., a resort community near Miami, collapsed to the ground. The Champlain Towers South fell into a pile of rubble, claiming 16 people as of midweek with the death toll climbing daily and many still missing.

While the focus remains on rescuing and recovering victims, questions remain what caused half of the 12-story condo building to collapse. While the potential reasons are many, the results of a structural study of the Champlain Towers South in 2018 shed some light into the cause.

In 2018, the condo’s board of directors commissioned an engineer to conduct a structural survey of the building and determine the extent of the damage and wear and tear over the years and come up with an estimate for repairs. In April, just about two months before last Thursday’s collapse, the Champlain Towers South board of directors’ president sent a letter to the unit owners alerting of the extent of the damage and advising them a potential special assessment could be needed to offset the cost of the repairs.

“Among other things, that estimate indicated that the concrete damage observed would begin to multiply exponentially over the years, and indeed the observable damage such as in the garage had gotten significantly worse since the initial inspection,” an excerpt of the lengthy letter reads. “When you can visually see the concrete spalling or cracking, that means the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface.”

Buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward counties participate in a 40-year inspection program, which requires buildings to be inspected and re-certified after 40-years. The Champlain Towers South was up for inspection in 2018, an inspection which generated the condo board president’s letter to owners in April.

Ocean City Chief Building Official Jake Doub said staffers in his office and the overall Planning and Community Development Department have been monitoring the South Florida incident in the week since the collapse and provided a little insight into how the town’s inspection program works.

“We’ve been watching the news on the partial collapse closely and have been answering questions from the public relating to Ocean City inspections,” he said. “For some background, the Building Division of the Town of Ocean City Planning and Community Development Department oversees new construction activities within the town.”

Ocean City does not have a similar mandated inspection program for existing buildings, instead largely relies on the buildings’ owners and their boards to have private contractors, engineers and architects, for example, to monitor their facilities.

“The building division has received numerous questions and concerns from the public in the wake of the Champlain Towers South condo partial building collapse,” he said. “Currently, we rely on building owners to maintain their buildings and let them seek out the services of contractors, architects, engineers and other professionals if they feel that there are construction-related concerns with their building.”

That’s not to say the town’s inspectors ignore older, existing buildings. The town’s inspectors go out in the field any time there is new construction, including an addition or some renovation to an older building when a building permit is pulled. If, in the course of inspecting new construction, the town’s inspectors observe a potential deficiency in the old construction, they inform the owners and their board of directors, for example.

“Our team of inspectors will perform visual inspections of new construction activities when a permit is issued, including renovation-type projects,” he said. “When the inspector arrives for the inspection, they will note any construction deficiencies and notify the owner to make the repairs or seek the services of a professional for the repairs. The town does not have a similar inspection and certification program the Broward County and Miami-Dade County has, and we encourage owners who have concerns about their building to continue to use the construction industry professionals for their advice on preventative maintenance inspections and repairs.”

Another set of eyes on the inspection front is the Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office. Fire Marshal Josh Bunting said this week his office does inspections at all high-rise buildings routinely, but the scope of the inspections from his end is limited to fire safety and life safety and not structural issues.

“The Fire Marshal’s Office’s high-rise safety inspection program coordinates inspections of each high-rise, of buildings over 75 feet, in Ocean City every four years,” he said. “These inspections are limited to fire and life-safety features, emergency plans, fire protection systems, occupancy use, etc. They do not address structural conditions, as those are outside the scope of our office and the overall fire code.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.