The Shame of It All

I am sure that like me, you were hit with a wave of nausea when you first learned about it. You felt those waves because you are in the building trades and you know the shame of it all, on many different levels.

The collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., on June 24 is sickening. The loss of people is breathtaking; the numbers of those relieved to have their lives, but contemplating how to live them with all their possessions and homes gone is chilling. How many of us haven’t dueled with a building inspection we felt too strict or unreasonable? And yet here, the building was so close to collapse that it actually did, with few concerns raised from regulators.

Editorial credit: Felix Mizioznikov / Shutterstock.com

The real shame of it all is that none of it, absolutely none of it, had to happen.

There will, I am sure, be a full investigation and recommendations for the future. There is already a fair amount of conjecture about how this tragedy will change how building inspections will be done in the future. I am guessing there will be more than enough of the blame pie to go around. Assigning blame and figuring out the root causes of such a disaster will surely bring empirical closure to the event, but those touched by it in any way may never have emotional closure.

Many years ago, a codes inspector explaining what he did, gave me some valuable advice. “You know how they say your fingernails can tell a lot about you?” he asked me. “You know—doctors can tell if you have been poisoned or have diabetes just by looking at your nails,” he continued. “Fingernails can show liver and lung disease as well as thyroid problems,” he continued, sounding more like a medical professional than a construction official. Then he hit me with it.

“Always remember, the doors and windows are the fingernails of the building.”

That conversation many years ago came back to me as I was reading one of the first reports about issues at Champlain Towers. It was completed by the structural engineering firm of Morabito Consultants on October 8, 2018.

What were the first items discussed in the report? The windows and doors. The engineers noted that condo owners had complained of flooding during a “hurricane event.”

The firm concluded that the infiltration occurred through the sliding glass doors and windows on the balcony due to lack of proper flashing at the sill and deteriorated perimeter sealants between the window/door frames and the masonry/concrete walls. Morabito recommended that the exterior sealant be removed and replaced at the perimeter. “Unfortunately,” the report went on to note that the new sliding doors in one unit “were not installed properly and were fabricated too tall to allow the base flashing to be properly installed.” The report recommended the new doors be discarded and that newer ones be fabricated.

The report also mentioned that the windows were near the end of their functional lifespan. “It is recommended that the window frame glazing (metal to glass) and perimeter sealant (metal to metal or metal to masonry/concrete) be removed and replaced for the entirety of the building …” The engineers recommended that the condo board “strongly consider the replacement of all exterior windows and doors with impact-resistant units.”

The report (which you can read in its entirety here) also highlighted the absence of any window washing suspension hooks needed to meet OSHA rules for cleaning windows.

The backbone of the 3-year old report focuses on the water on the pool deck, parking garage and pavers which many believe will be the ultimate cause of the collapse. But for me, the old building inspection was right. The story was first told in the building’s fingernails.

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