On June 24th, 2021, the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Miami collapsed, killing 98 people. While the causes of the collapse are still under investigation, the building’s history of structural deficiencies is likely to have played a part. The Champlain Towers collapse is only the latest in a series of fatal building catastrophes which could have been prevented with proper oversight. In their wake, the continuing deterioration of our buildings and infrastructure causes us to ask if the commodification of buildings as real estate, and exercises in wealth creation, has caused us to lose sight of architecture’s primary role as shelter and habitat.
On July 26th, 54-year-old attorney Estelle Hedaya became the final victim to be named from the collapse of the building. Most victims, ranging from a one-year-old child to a 92-year-old woman, were likely asleep when the incident occurred at 1:30 am, while rescue crews found no evidence that anyone who died at the scene had survived the initial collapse.
As the scale of the incident emerged, the tower’s collapse became international news. Of the 136 units in the 12-story building, 55 had collapsed, leaving over 14,000 tons of broken concrete and rebar in their place. As rescue teams combed through the rubble, hampered by the risks of further collapses and an impending tropical storm, unsettling details of the building itself began to emerge. One week after the collapse, a 2018 report resurfaced which warned of “major structural damage” at the base of the building, including a survey that identified a failing concrete slab on the pool deck and “abundant cracking and crumbling” to the underground parking garage. Without repairs being carried out in “a timely fashion,” the report read, the building’s condition would continue to deteriorate.
The building’s original design by the now-defunct Breiterman, Jurado and Associates has also been the subject of scrutiny. The same 2018 report highlighted a “major error” in the design of the 1981 building. “The main issue with this building structure is that the entrance drive / pool deck / planter waterproofing is laid on a flat structure,” the report read. “Since the reinforced concrete slab is not sloped to drain, the water sits on the waterproofing until it evaporates. This is a major error in the development of the original contract documents.” A recent report in the Miami Herald, meanwhile, featured a collection of architectural and engineering experts who posited that the building was “flawed from day one.” The report proposes that the design of structural columns, which were too narrow to accommodate enough steel reinforcement, would have caused builders to make ad-hoc decisions which may have weakened the structure. According to the report, builders would have faced a choice of either overloading the columns with steel which would have accelerated corrosion, or inadequately attaching floor slabs to the columns.
While the Champlain Towers collapse was shocking to all involved and observing, the narrative underpinning the collapse is becoming increasingly familiar.
For now, explanations for the cause of the building’s collapse remain purely theoretical. A federal investigation into the collapse by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has begun, examining everything from the original design and maintenance records to soil conditions on the site. A full investigation, and conclusive answer as to what caused the collapse, is expected to take years. Meanwhile, the site of the collapse has been fully cleared, following the controlled demolition of the tower’s remaining structure on July 4th. The vacant site is due to be sold for over $100 million and likely to be redeveloped.
The NIST’s investigation will no doubt reveal crucial, reverberating findings to inform future building codes in Miami, the United States, and perhaps internationally. However, as NIST zooms in on the pragmatic, scientific, micro-level of the subject site in search of answers, there is also merit in zooming out, stepping back, and considering the Champlain Towers collapse in a wider context. While the Champlain Towers collapse was shocking to all involved and observing, the narrative underpinning the collapse is becoming increasingly familiar. For example, the incident occurred weeks before the four-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, which claimed 72 lives when it caught fire in the early hours of July 14th, 2017. The basic ingredients in the Champlain Towers collapse were also present at Grenfell: inadequate building codes, poor design, and a negligent use of materials.
Four years after Grenfell, an ongoing public inquiry into the disaster has revealed a series of design, construction, and maintenance decisions which created the conditions for the blaze. These include a decision by Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, the local authority overseeing the building’s renovation in 2013, to drop plans to renovate the tower with fire-resistant cladding in an effort to save money. The building was ultimately clad in a cheaper, less fire-resistant aluminum composite panel with a plastic core, filled with insulation that the inquiry found had never passed a fire-safety test, and should not have been used. The inquiry has also heard that Grenfell residents had told the council three months before the disaster that they were “seriously concerned” the tower could suffer a fatal fire, but that the residents’ concerns were treated as those of “sub-citizens.” This lack of empathy for victims continued in the aftermath of the fire, with then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to meet with residents the next day sharply criticized. One year after the fire, over half of the surviving households from Grenfell were still living in hotels and temporary accommodation, waiting to be rehoused.
The underlying negligence towards building safety displayed in both cases spans many sectors of the built environment.
While Grenfell represents the most convenient comparison to Champlain Towers given their similarities in scale, typology, and loss of life, the underlying negligence towards building safety displayed in both cases spans many sectors of the built environment. In April 2021, for instance, the Chicago Tribune and the Better Government Association (BGA) published an investigation finding that, since 2014, at least 61 people, 23 of whom were under the age of 17, have died in Chicago buildings where city officials were aware of fire safety problems. Stories contained in the report included a 63-year-old man who died in a two-story building illegally partitioned into 16 rooms and a three-year-old who died in the bedroom of her third-floor apartment that lacked smoke detectors. Of the 42 fires that claimed 61 lives, nine contained unaddressed fire safety issues previously reported to city officials, 24 were knowingly absent of fire and smoke mitigation measures, and nine were the result of city officials not ensuring people stayed away from dangerous vacant buildings.
In total, 599 complaints of serious violations related to the 42 fires were unaddressed by the city, with almost half not even triggering an inspection. In a series of events reminiscent of Prime Minister May and Kensington Council’s reaction to Grenfell, Chicago’s city officials responded to the Tribune’s investigation by deferring portions of blame to tenant action, abuse of their complaints system by tenants, and a claim that tenants had sometimes been unavailable to allow city officials entry to their homes to investigate complaints. This final excuse is disputed by the Tribune, pointing to the absence of evidence of these incidents in city records.
The collapse of the wall at Edinburgh’s Oxgang School occurred at 7 am on a school day, hours before children could easily have been standing or passing through the zone.
The negligence of officials to adequately maintain buildings under their jurisdiction is matched by instances of contractors knowingly constructing buildings and infrastructure in a manner that could cause future loss of life. Earlier this year, for example, unsealed records in New York detailed a whistleblower allegation that some of the high-strength bolts used to construct the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, the largest bridge construction in the state’s history, were defective. The lawsuit, which is still ongoing, claims that contractor Tappan Zee Constructors (TZC) had knowingly used a large number of faulty bolts, were aware that a suspicious number of bolts was breaking during shipment, installation, and operation, had concealed issues with the bolts from inspectors, had hidden and destroyed evidence of broken bolts, had falsely certified that completed work met certification standards, and had secretly replaced broken bolts outside of normal working hours to avoid detection by inspectors. While New York’s Thruway Authority has affirmed that the bridge is safe and regularly inspected, the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy in 2018, killing 38 people, is a reminder of the deadly consequences of bridges remaining open for use despite warnings of poor construction techniques, even with regular inspection.
Meanwhile, when nine tons of masonry unexpectedly collapsed from the wall of Oxgang School in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2016, it was discovered that 17 schools in the city contained walls which either did not have enough wall ties or contained the wrong type of wall tie holding the masonry wall system together. The revelations made national news across the UK and led to the closure of schools affecting 7,600 pupils. A subsequent report, which blamed a lack of oversight and quality assurance on behalf of the builder, said it was “a matter of timing and luck” that no injuries or fatalities were suffered from the incident. The collapse of the wall at Oxgang School occurred at 7 am on a school day, hours before children could easily have been standing or passing through the zone. The report concludes that “one does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if the collapse had happened one hour or so later.” The incident also triggered a debate in Scotland and the UK over the dangers of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in the delivery of public buildings and the dangers of contractors cutting corners in design and construction without oversight from public bodies.
A core aspect of architectural education and licensing is to create environments centered on humanity, manifested in structures where safety, resilience, and diligence are placed on a pedestal. In reality, however, the construction, maintenance, oversight, and overall attitude to the built environment can be more akin to a House of Cards.
Whether in the United States, UK, or elsewhere, a core aspect of architectural education and licensing is to create environments centered on humanity, manifested in structures where safety, resilience, and diligence are placed on a pedestal. In reality, however, the construction, maintenance, oversight, and overall attitude to the built environment can be more akin to a House of Cards. Whether it be towers in Miami and London, houses in Chicago, schools in Edinburgh, or bridges in Genoa and New York, our attitude to the built environment as an enriching private commodity or asset, rather than shelter, service, or public good, translates across international and typological contexts. The incidents highlighted in this article, which have collectively claimed the lives of 269 people, all contain instances where building safety was consciously sacrificed in favor of financial savings, be it the failure to repair structural damage at Surfside, or use adequate cladding on Grenfell Tower, or dedicate necessary resources to keeping homes in Chicago safe, or to decommission a bridge in Genoa which, even before its collapse, had been dubbed “a failure of engineering.”
Each incident serves as a deadly, or potentially deadly, symptom of a built environment which has lost sight of its primary original responsibility: to shelter and protect people from harm, particularly in vulnerable moments such as sleep or rest. To arrive at a present condition where this responsibility is negated, and even reversed to the extent that architecture can cause the harm it was intended to prevent, is a sad indictment of how our attitude to buildings, and to real estate, has devolved.
While it may be tempting to dismiss these incidents as “cherry-picking” from an otherwise safe and pure building stock, the process of designing and constructing our built environment is fueled by an accepted norm of pushing health and safety regulations to their practical limits. Such fears were recently underlined in a major survey of construction professionals by the British Board of Agrément (BBA), a major UK body for issuing certificates for construction products. The survey asked respondents what factors they believed were “the most likely to cause an emerging or actual disaster in the next few years.” The top two results, ranking far higher than any other risks, were “poor workmanship / installation quality” and “uncontrolled value engineering.” The message from the industry is clear: our preoccupation with delivering projects for the cheapest price, with the fewest resources possible, is the single most likely factor to cause a future building disaster.
Increasingly unpredictable weather conditions due to climate change may place strains on new and existing buildings which they were not designed to accommodate.
Without a paradigm shift in the priorities and motives underpinning modern construction, we will rely on a strengthening of regulations and oversight during the design, construction, and maintenance of our built environment to mitigate against future disaster. This pre-emptive approach to building regulations stands largely in contrast to how building regulations currently evolve; often in response to disasters such as those outlined in this article. The genesis of the UK’s current building regulations can be traced to the Great Fire of London in 1666, while the Grenfell fire has prompted amendments including a ban on the use of combustible materials in external walls of high-rise residential buildings. Meanwhile, the requirement in Miami for buildings to undergo a detailed inspection when they reach 40 years in operation can be traced back to the collapse of the Drug Enforcement Agency office in Miami in 1974, killing seven people. The Champlain Towers were currently undergoing this process at the time of its collapse. When the inquiry into the Champlain Towers collapse concludes, this too will almost certainly lead to reforms in local and national building codes.
While this reactionary approach to upgrading building safety standards may be justifiable today, while deadly building collapses remain rare, future threats to the built environment may necessitate a new, more pre-emptive approach. Increasingly unpredictable weather conditions due to climate change may place strains on new and existing buildings which they were not designed to accommodate; even the collapse of the Champlain Towers caused some to question whether climate change played a role in flooding or weakening the foundations of the coastal property.
The aftermath of the Champlain Towers collapse has also caused some to fear that more buildings from the 1980s may be in danger of suffering the same fate due to corruption or oversight during construction. In her article on the Champlain Towers collapse in the American Prospect, Amelia Pollard explains how “a generation of condos that erupted at that time is now collectively turning 40—an age when many high-rise buildings start to show serious signs of wear. The decade was notorious for lax building codes, with Ronald Reagan’s own Housing Department mired in scandal. And with the decade’s political winds dominated by deregulation, the self-governance of condos became popular. State building codes in an era of deregulation were also lacking.”
Our laissez-faire mindset to human safety in buildings has survived the Champlain Towers South collapse, and will sadly remain alive and well.
In the wake of the Champlain Towers collapse, there are signs that Pollard’s assessment may be true. On August 10th, 2021, two months after the Champlain Towers collapse, a 138-unit building in Miami was evacuated having been deemed unsafe and having failed to obtain its 40-year recertification. The action was prompted in part by residents, whose concerns over the condition of the building led city officials to carry out an inspection. Following controversy over unauthorized repair works being carried out on failing structural columns, all 138 households were evacuated. One day previous, a fire broke out at a separate 1970s condo tower in North Miami Beach, which had been empty since July 2nd after residents were evacuated for safety reasons. The 156-unit condo, named Crestview Towers, had also skipped its 40-year recertification, which should have been submitted in 2012.
Against the backdrop of this crisis of confidence in Miami’s condo towers, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has so far refused to commit to any actions on a state level to address the concerns. In a fitting turn of phrase for an industry fueled by dehumanizing profit and speculation, DeSantis reasoned that Miami condos are “kind of a dime a dozen” and that the Champlain Towers “had problems from the start.”
Despite claiming 98 lives in June, and many more in years gone by, our laissez-faire mindset to human safety in buildings has survived the Champlain Towers South collapse and will sadly remain alive and well.