Hamed Layssi is a registered professional engineer and co-founder of the engineering testing company FPrimeC Solutions.
The tragic collapse of a 12-storey beachfront condo in Florida has reignited discussion around proper inspection and maintenance of buildings. At the moment there is limited information available about the condition of the building prior to its collapse, but there are insights we can gather by looking at the common challenges similar structures face in Canada and abroad.
The first step is to understand that the deterioration of construction materials over time is inevitable. Steel bars in concrete elements that are exposed to chloride or saline environments – slabs and columns found in parking garages, for example – corrode over time. Concrete subjected to aggressive chemicals such as de-icing salts and contaminated soil can experience disintegration.
Structural systems are a complex matrix of foundations, columns, beams, floors and lateral load-bearing systems meant to brace against wind and earthquake loads. While each of these components has its own complexities in design and detailed requirements based on demand load, it’s the combination of these elements that makes things even more challenging. Understanding the load paths – how the load is distributed among adjacent components when a column or beam fails and estimating forces in each – is an easy task at the design stage, but evaluating them for an existing structure can be extremely challenging, with so many unknowns and uncertainties to account for.
Limits to structure inspection guidelines are a challenge as well. Here in Canada, our inspection and maintenance protocols for key infrastructure facilities such as bridges are well developed. For residential buildings and high-rise condominiums, however, the guidelines are not crystal clear. While the Structural Condition Assessment of Existing Buildings and Designated Structures Guideline by Professional Engineers Ontario is a great resource to help engineers perform better assessments, it doesn’t clearly specify the frequency and extent of inspections and assessments, leaving gaps in how and when owners and maintenance managers take action.
In talking to owners with residential or commercial assets, you’ll often hear that “there is not enough money right now” for inspections. Many asset owners focus their budget on day-to-day needs such as hot water, heat, HVAC, proper lighting and electricity rather than on structure inspection and proper maintenance, with many feeling that money invested in inspection is lost capital. Truthfully, there will always be a lack of budget and, yes, quality inspections and assessments can be costly, but ignoring minor issues as a structure ages can result in serious problems and threaten lives.
With all of these challenges, what can be done to prevent the collapse of buildings? The first, and perhaps most obvious, is proper maintenance programs that involve routine inspection and assessment. This process should focus on adapting a systematic approach using relevant codes, guidelines and standards, and involve closely observing and collecting data from each crack or leak for insight into the mechanical and durability performance of the structural components.
Implementing a multitechnology approach to building assessments is also key. Recent advancements in inspection and materials testing are enabling engineers to collect far better insight about structural integrity and quality of materials.
It truly takes a village to ensure public safety and longer service life of structures. Preventing the collapse of a building doesn’t rest on the shoulders of just one party, but several. Governing bodies need to have clearer guidelines with regards to the inspection of residential buildings and parking garages. Building owners and facility managers must do better in terms of making structural defects a priority, and hiring qualified engineers to make inspections and evaluations on a routine basis. And we, as engineers, need to adopt the new technologies and non-destructive testing solutions that are available to properly identify defects in advance.
With everyone doing their part and all these systems in place, more cost-effective maintenance and repair can ensure public safety and help prevent future devastation.
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