To help avoid another building disaster, such as the June 24 partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South residential condominium in Surfside, Florida legislators should establish statewide mandatory structural recertification inspections and whole-building safety inspections for most existing buildings of all types, modeled after those required by Miami-Dade County since 1975.

These are the main recommendations, released Oct. 28, of a coalition of building professionals called the Surfside Working Group, that have been sent to the state legislature. The group’s nine-page report, Florida Building Professionals Recommendations, has also been made available to the public, including building officials and jurisdictions.

The goal of the inspections would be to identify problems before they escalate to building failures, says Allen Douglas, the leader of the group and executive director of the American Council of Engineering Cos. of Florida (ACECF), which represents engineering firms, and the Florida Engineering Society (FES), which represents individual engineers. “We are not trying to tell people how to maintain their buildings,” he adds.

Corrosive Saltwater Environment

Unlike Miami-Dade, which already requires recertification of buildings that exceed 10 occupants or 2,000 sq ft 40 years after completion, the report recommends structural recertification when a building is only 20 years old, and again every seven years, if the building is located in a corrosive saltwater environment. For buildings a minimum of three miles from saltwater, the inspections would start when the building reached 30 years of age and again every decade.

“A lot of the recommendations we already have on our books in Miami-Dade County,” says Jaime Gascon, the county’s division director for the Board of Rules and Appeals and Code Administration.

The county is considering reducing the initial time period for recertification from 40 to 30 years, he adds. But the Surfside group’s recommendation for different time periods for inspections based on proximity to saltwater is something Miami-Dade debated but rejected.

“We determined all of Miami-Dade is just as vulnerable to the saltwater environment and decided against making a distinction,” says Gascon.

The recommendations were authored by 20 individuals who donated their time. In addition to ACECF and FES, the authors represent the Florida Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the International Concrete Repair Institute, the Building Officials Association of Florida and the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects.

Recommendations 'Lack Sufficient Detail'

Allyn Kilsheimer, founder and CEO of KCE Structural Engineers, says the recommendations are well-intended but "lack sufficient detail" to be effective as a guide for inspection. This even applies to the recommended qualifications of the inspectors, says Kilsheimer, who has been working as a structural expert for the town of Surfside since June 25, a day after the Champlain Towers South failure.

For example, according to Kilsheimer, a structure with post-tensioned floors needs a licensed structural-engineer inspector experienced with post-tensioning, not just any structural engineer and "definitely not an architect."

The town of Surfside, in July, issued detailed recommendations for recertification inspections and recommended accelerating the inspection process for Surfside buildings along the ocean, says Kilsheimer, who wrote the inspection methodology for Surfside. 

Peer Review for New Construction

Regarding new construction, the report recommends statewide peer review to identify deficiencies in a structural design. “Several localities within Florida, as well as in many other states, require peer reviews for buildings over a certain size, however no such requirement exists statewide in Florida,” says the report.

For structural inspections, the report recommends a visual inspection performed under the direction of a licensed professional engineer or a licensed architect with experience designing and inspecting structures. At minimum, the inspector should look at garages, pool decks, roof parapets, common areas, unconditioned spaces, accessible exterior areas of the structureincluding at least one third of the balconiesand handrails.

If the inspector finds signs of structural distress, a more thorough inspection would be required by a licensed design professional with at least a decade of experience designing structures and five years inspecting structural components of similar building types. The inspection could involve destructive and nondestructive testing, as well as the services of other design disciplines, such as a geotechnical engineer.

These in-depth inspections “may be as extensive or as limited as necessary to fully assess damaged areas of the structure in order to either (a) confirm that the structure is safe for its intended use, or (b) recommend a program for fully assessing and repairing damaged portions of the structure,” says the report.

Paid For by the Owner

All inspections would be paid for by the building owners. They would need to be signed and sealed by the licensed professional and submitted, concurrently, to the local buildings department and the building owner. Currently, the Miami-Dade program does not require the licensed professional to submit the report concurrently to the authority having jurisdiction. Typically, the report is submitted by the building owner. But if any imminent danger is identified, the design professional has a duty to report that directly to the jurisdiction, says Gascon.

Douglas says visual inspections could cost $3,000 to $5,000 for a 100-unit building. For the larger buildings, inspections could cost $15,000 or more. The cost of the more in-depth inspections would depend on the problems uncovered, he says.

The whole-building inspections would focus on electrical systems, fire protection systems and exterior envelopes. The current Miami-Dade Building Recertification program, in existence since 1975, includes assessments of the structure, electrical service, emergency lighting and the integrity of roofing and windows.

Existing Building Guide

The International Code Council (ICC), in coordination with the Florida Building Commission, is currently finalizing the Existing Building Safety Inspection Guide under a program called Ensuring the Safety of Existing Buildings. The guide addresses periodic and milestone assessments of building structures, envelopes and electrical and fire protection systems.

The Surfside group recommends the ICC guide be adopted statewide to ensure overall building safety. Additional changes would be required to the Florida Building Code Chapter 17 for Florida to adopt the program, according to the report.

ICC expects to develop a national version of the guide for publication early next summer, says Mike Pfeiffer, ICC’s senior vice president for technical services. Following that, ICC expects to publish a national standard.

“There’s a high degree of interest” in the subject of existing-building inspection and maintenance, especially from the structural engineering community, says Pfeiffer.