GAITHERSBURG, MD — Construction experts recently revealed additional information about the June 2021 partial collapse of a condominium building in Surfside, Fla. The shocking event killed 98 people and resulted in an ongoing investigation from officials at the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Advisory Committee and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
A Sept. 7 article from the NIST began to uncover how the construction of the pool deck may have deviated from design requirements. “This adds to the low margins against failure that were first announced at the June 2023 NCST Advisory Committee meeting (see presentation),” wrote NIST officials. “The team found that the number of slab reinforcing bars centered over vertical columns was inadequate and that the reinforcing bars in the top of the slab in the vicinity of the columns were spaced farther apart than the design required. These deviations weakened the slab-column connections.”
Construction Super Conference presenter Wayne Kalayjian, managing director at Secretariat, El Segundo, Calif., has spent part of his career assessing construction disasters and the defects that spawned them. Third Thursday sat down with Kalayjian to get his reaction to the latest findings on the Surfside disaster.
Third Thursday: What was your reaction to the latest Surfside report?
Wayne Kalayjian: I was expecting something a little different and had thought it may have been something to do with a latent soil condition, like a sinkhole, or that there were some long-term maintenance issues that were not addressed by the condo board. That’s what people were thinking about the failure back when it first happened.
What surprised me here, in particular, was that these defects had been baked into the building at the time of construction. I’m not sure what triggered the collapse to happen at the precise time that it did. It seems the design was flawed from the start at certain parts of the pool; and that reinforcement bars were not placed as prescribed on the drawings, nor were they properly inspected during construction.
So, in a way this building was like a ticking time bomb. But what remains unanswered is what triggered it to fail on that day. After all, it could have failed a year after construction, or 10, or 15. But here it took almost 40 years. In a strange way, it’s kind of comforting because it illustrates the inherent factors of safety that are built into our building codes, and the conservatism of our designs. On the other hand, it’s a bit scary because one won’t know whether one’s house, office building, or school also contains a latent defect that could trigger at any moment.
Third Thursday: What’s the main takeaway of the NIST report so far?
Wayne Kalayjian: One of the issues seems to suggest that the amount of steel reinforcement was not sufficient around portions of the pool. We don’t know why. There was another issue which suggests that the installation of the steel did not follow design specifications, and that the workers did not pay attention to the design drawings.
Third Thursday: No structural engineer would knowingly ignore such defects, correct?
Wayne Kalayjian: It’s a structural engineer’s worst nightmare. We design buildings to stand up and to be safe, and there are issues detected by NIST so far that seem to suggest that this was not done. There are meetings at job sites to make sure that everyone knows their jobs. That was ignored at that particular part of the job.
Third Thursday: What types of safeguards are in place to prevent these failures?
Wayne Kalayjian: Even under these uncertain conditions, there are fail safes in place, like field supervision and inspection, to detect these kinds of issues. But those seem to have slipped through the cracks at the pool. And by the way, this happens from time to time. But when you see a catastrophic failure like this, it is usually caused by more than one deficiency, and I believe that is what NIST is trying to nail down. Whatever happened, the inspectors or the supervisors didn’t catch the issue.
Third Thursday: What other types of disasters may fit within those “series of failures” in your experience?
Wayne Kalayjian: I worked on the Deep Water Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2012 or so, and observed the same thing. It was not just a single deficiency; there were multiple things that went wrong, and they did—and that’s why the disaster occurred. In this case, the connections between the beams and the columns seemed to become the source of failure, and these intersections where structural elements meet are often the most critical elements in a structural system, and this is recognized in our current building codes.
Third Thursday: How can construction lawyers help?
Wayne Kalayjian: The most effective way that lawyers can help is to encourage the practice of field observation. This will mean more experts on a construction site and lead to higher expense, but it’s not enough just to have construction superintendents and supervisors watching over the work. We need to have trained engineers on the site, and more often, and who have a stake in the outcome of construction.
Here in California, we use the term “site observation” and it is performed by licensed professional engineers and architects—especially engineers when you’re talking about structural elements. There’s not enough of it, and it takes years to acquire that kind of expertise. In addition, I’m not sure if owners are willing to pay for it, which is problematic; but from a lawyer’s perspective, that’s what I would do.
Third Thursday: Is that the kind of thing that the lawyers can write into contracts?
Wayne Kalayjian: Yes. Lawyers can not only prescribe the requirement, but also its duration. It might be that we need to have more rigorous inspections and more of them—and they need to be longer in duration.
In my view, we don’t treat site observation with the rigor that it deserves. Lawyers can play a role to ensure that Site Observation becomes routine, common, and often-employed by owners for their project. They have to be prepared to pay for it, because it is an added expense to have licensed professional engineers in the field for a long time while they are writing reports, taking photographs, and being diligent in construction; and you might need a team, and that can add up, especially if an owner is pinched for dollars. But this expense is minor compared to the catastrophic consequences that we saw at Surfside.