Are Our Buildings Still Up To Code?

The Miami building collapse is another devastating wake-up call for all industry stakeholders.

By Ron Stupi

It’s no secret: America’s infrastructure is aging. In fact, the U.S. scores a sobering C- in the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the U.S. needs to spend as much as $2 trillion on infrastructure in the next four years alone. Engineers and experts have pushed for prioritization of the country’s infrastructure for years — but so far, their warnings have been largely overlooked or deprioritized.

Miami’s recent Champlain Towers building collapse is just one example of damage that likely could have been avoided with proactive testing, building inspection, and timely repairs/restoration. It is a heartbreaking event that serves as a sobering wake-up call. In addition to aging infrastructure, it is also prudent to consider infrastructure that has been vacant during the course of the pandemic. With mechanical systems that haven’t fully operated in over a year, inspection and timely restoration is necessary to avoid potential accidents.

building inspection
Photo: Bureau Veritas

The Root Of A Two-Pronged Problem: Regulatory & Philosophical

The Champlain Towers tragedy is among the deadliest mass casualty building collapses in history, with a death toll that sadly continues to rise. So, what went wrong?

Many suspect that a sub-par regulatory environment meant that a significant level of decision-making was left to the condo’s owner association, not the professionals. In fact, five members of the seven-member board actually resigned in fall 2019, when the association was debating repairs after an inspection. This was due to disputes over the limited response in executing the repairs needed, which were estimated to be about $9 million in 2018, and rising due to inflation. The engineering report warned of major structural damage and abundant cracking and crumbling of support-bearing columns, highlighting why the substantial repairs were vital. But how is the condo’s owner association expected to fund a such an exorbitantly priced repair?

building inspection
Photo: Bureau Veritas

Under pressure to keep costs down, most HOAs have little money set aside for big repairs. The Champlain Towers condo owner’s association only had $800,000 in reserves, which meant asking residents to significantly increase their monthly HOA payments for an average totaling $208,000 per home. Without proper knowledge of what was vitally needed or required, understandably, the residents did not want to pay.

To note, reserve funding by HOAs is only required in 11 states and most do not have HOAs robust reserves in place to help pay for large repairs when they come due. In the Champlain Tower’s case, a lot of this financial obstacle may have been mitigated had the association planned and built reserve funding over the years.

The Champlain Towers tragedy is just one example that reveals the shortcomings of a system that relies on volunteer condo boards to make critical decisions for the community. There aren’t strict and consistent regulations on building inspections federally. An honor system is not the solution when it comes to matters of life safety.

Additionally, a large part of the problem is philosophical. We, as a newer nation, tend to invest in the new and shiny. There’s not much glory or visible change in refurbishing an aging building; it often looks the same post-restoration. Taxpayers and condo owners don’t optically see the changes, and people like to see where their money is being spent. There simply isn’t glamor in restoring aging infrastructure, as there is in unveiling a brand-new skyscraper. America’s yearning for newness has caused major safety implications. We celebrate grand openings but rarely mid-points, and that is something to mull over.

Unlike elevators that require regular inspections and maintenance, there’s isn’t a consistent regulation to enforce building structures in the U.S., but the recent Miami building collapse may finally be a wake-up call and watershed moment for facility management, regulators, condo associations, and industry experts alike. It is highlighting the need to reevaluate both regulatory and philosophical factors.

We cannot ignore our aging infrastructure. We must invest in it. Experts have been warning of this for decades. Some even indicate that these tragic examples are going to become more frequent if change doesn’t happen. America’s infrastructure continues to age and climate change is only adding fuel to the fire. Buildings are designed for their environment, but climate change has introduced new or more severe elements that also must be accounted for.

The Remedy: It Starts With Third-Party Inspection & Stringent Implementation

There are evident inadequacies in this system that relies on volunteer condo board members to make decisions that should be left to engineering and testing, inspection, and certification (TIC) professionals. Let’s be clear, the remedy is not a quick fix. As aging building costs continue to rise, and budgets get tighter, facility managers are challenged. But they are the first line of defense in an aging building.

Involving neutral third-party TIC providers such as Bureau Veritas to play a more substantial role in outlining next steps after a building inspection, and close collaboration from government entities to mandate recommended implementation, is key. The solution also lies in a thorough reevaluation and refreshing of building inspection regulations across the nation, requiring more stringent and regular inspections, as well as clear-cut rules requiring timely repairs and restorations, with state and federal grants to help defray costs and encourage action. Additionally long-term loans from banks designated for HOA repairs can help circumvent situations like the Champlain Towers collapse, as they can fund large repairs immediately, allowing the HOA to pay it back over a longer, more reasonable period of time.

Stupi is SVP & COO of Bureau Veritas’ building and infrastructure (B&I) team, part of its Commodities, Infrastructure, and Facilities (CIF) division in North America. Bureau Veritas is a world leader in testing, inspection and certification services (TIC). In his role, Stupi has responsibility for all building and infrastructure activities of Bureau Veritas North America. Prior to BVNA (which acquired EMG in 2018), Stupi served as the director of real estate and strategic planning with TravelCenters of America. He also served as director of real estate for the western region of TOSCO (now ConocoPhillips) and a stint at British Petroleum (BP) where he managed environmental issues surrounding petroleum-impacted real estate.

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