Surfside Condo Tragedy: What Architects should learn from this sad event.

The Surfside condo collapse has been a tragedy for the community and has many people are worried about their safety. The known structural degradation should have been enough to prevent such a disaster, but that wasn’t so in this case. How were these people let down and what can we learn from an experience such as this? As Engineers and Architects, we should learn from terrible tragedies such as these.

As news and footage from the scene started to come in of this terrible event the story started to unveil itself. A concrete condo tower built along the beachside nearly 40 years ago was under investigation by structural engineers and scheduled to start repairs. Then collapses in the middle of the night. But this story gets even darker. This was not a recent discovery. In 2018, over three years ago, a structural engineering firm was hired to do an assessment of the damages. They expressed concerns over corrosion to the concrete structure due to what appeared to be waterproofing issues.

I have not read the full report, but I believe this building was twelve stories over a concrete parking deck. So the ground floor of the building was a plaza with a parking garage below. Structures like this are not uncommon but they are extremely complicated when it comes to waterproofing and construction. Imagine digging out a room under your driveway and trying to keep water out. Not only water but saltwater and salt spray, which we all know wreaks havoc on steel.

Based on what I’ve seen in news reports, years of water infiltration degraded the steel reinforcing in the concrete construction leading to the failure of the first floor and collapse of the structure above. There were reports of visible rust on the steel reinforcing and spalling concrete before the collapse.

This construction type is nothing new. There are buildings all over the world with this construction and many up and down the coastline of similar construction and age. It’s not some experimental design with untested waters. It’s a tried and true construction method proven to withstand hurricane after hurricane. What happened in this case? What was so different than the thousand other buildings in the area?

For Architects and Engineers, this should represent a harsh reality check. Buildings fail. Given time and adverse conditions, they will always fail. We see examples of this every year where buildings collapse under their own weight from construction defects, poor maintenance, or just age. Nothing lasts forever, but usually, there are warning signs. And in this case, there were, and they were documented. Why were the warning signs not taken more seriously?

What do we need to learn from this? What should the Architecture and Engineering profession change so the occupants of our buildings will never suffer a similar fate?

First off we need to take responsibility. We need to acknowledge our profession has built an industry around creating structures with the purpose of protecting people. We build buildings for people, not for profit. By separating buildings from their purpose, we have created structures that are not properly maintained by the owners and without oversight by professionals.

Architects have turned their backs on the duty to uphold standards of quality and safety. This tragic event is a reminder that we are accountable, not only for our mistakes but also for other people’s mistakes. Architects and Engineers can no longer be mere designers of buildings as they were in the past, now our role is one of guardian and watchdog.

Preventing future tragedies like these should be one of our utmost concerns. To prepare Architects for this new role, we should promote education for understanding and recognizing the warning signs. How to deal with those warning signs and how to properly address them. Architects understand buildings and how to make them perform, but they don’t always know how to recognize life-threatening danger signs.

We need more than simple lessons in Doing It Right, Safer and Better. Those lessons are unlikely to be enough for coping with our responsibilities as guardians of the public trust. How do we convince those in charge to act on issues?

How do you convince those to make the investments necessary to keep our residents safe? Even more importantly, how do we make the public aware when our concerns and suggestions are being ignored or postponed?

I’m not going to claim to have the answers to this problem, but I do recognize that it’s something we need to be aware of as designers. As stewards of the public’s health, safety, and welfare, we should consider ways in which this can be avoided in the future.

I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can prevent such a tragedy in the future. How can ongoing maintenance be addressed in our buildings, and how can we continue to serve our clients and occupants so we can create safe spaces?

I’m an Architect. My favorite thing to do is create stories through architectural design. Founder of Whitewash Studio architecture firm in Atlanta, GA.