Inspectors from South Florida have been gathering to inspect other high-rises in the wake of the fatal building collapse last month. This is an effort to prevent another tragedy.However, Champlain Towers South was visited by officials regularly in years prior to its fall.According to Daily Reuters analysis of town records, inspectors from Surfside visited the condo tower on average twice per week in 2018 and 2019.
Even though the condo board hired an engineer to assess the building, and residents debated funding for costly repairs, it is not known if any town employees rushed through the building raising red flags about a condo that would fall with fatal consequences two years later.
One reason is that they were responsible for ensuring compliance with permits, ranging from plumbing upgrades to repairs to air conditioning systems to window installation in individual units. They did not have to inspect the structure of the building.
State and local officials, as well as real estate professionals around Florida, are now asking whether mandatory structural inspections of buildings in Florida should be made. If so, what role should government inspectors play?
Experts believe that the high number of inspections at Champlain Towers South raises questions about Florida’s building regulations. This is at a time where larger flaws seemed to be going unnoticed by the town government.While municipalities and towns collect fees for permits and inspections related to them, property owners are responsible for larger structural safety reviews.Eric Glazer, an attorney from South Florida, is part of a committee that will advise a task force to review Florida condominium law.They’ll continue to chase the little guy if they pass the common elements on their way to the place.This is how it works.
Between January 2018 and August 2019, Champlain Towers South saw 177 inspections by town employees. On average, inspections took place on one of four weekdays.During the 20-month period, there were only three buildings that Surfside town employees performed more inspections on than Champlain Towers South.
Officials in South Florida have been scrambling to inspect other buildings and evacuate any other unsafe structures since the tragedy, which took 94 lives as of Tuesday.
As Floridians worry about their condos being in danger, reform calls are increasing.
Miami-Dade County (which includes Surfside) has some of Florida’s most stringent building inspection regulations.Miami-Dade, along with Broward County, requires building owners to hire an engineer every ten years after turning 40. This requirement was established after seven people were killed in a 1974 Miami office building collapse.
Champlain Towers South was expected to reach that milestone of 40 years this year.The condo board hired an engineer to find alarming damage. He documented it in a 2018 report. Work had already begun on repairs when the tower fell.
However, inspections are required by the government to verify that property owners comply with their individual permits before buildings reach 40.
According to a 5,700-page document on the town’s website, Surfside conducts hundreds of such inspections each year. It lists building inspections dating back to the 1990s.Daily Reuters converted the document to a more user-friendly database and searched for all inspections at Champlain Towers South (8777 Collins Ave).
An analysis revealed that more than a dozen building inspections were conducted every year by the town since 2013, and more than 100 in 2018.Most inspections involved permits for “alterations, repairs”, exterior windows and doors, as well as air conditioning replacement.
Multiple inspectors may have visited the building at the same time on different days.Inspections with the status of canceled were not included in the analysis.
Daily Reuters also obtained a separate document from the town listing inspections between October 1, 2019, and October 1, 2019, following a department change in its record-keeping system.This revealed that Champlain Towers South inspectors performed more than 12 inspections in 2020 and 2021. However, this is likely due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Jim McGuinness was the head of the town’s building department and inspected the roof work on June 23rd, the day before it collapsed.McGuinness stated that he did not see any signs that the building was at risk of falling.
McGuinness, in an interview, rebutted the idea that inspectors focused more on structural integrity than permitting issues. He stated that buildings must be certified to comply with all building codes before being occupied.
“Our job is to ensure safety and life in buildings.That’s it.McGuinness stated that this is our job, but he also said that it was the responsibility of building owners to maintain their properties.“We are the guys who help people to help themselves.”
McGuinness stated that the inspectors of the town are currently inspecting buildings for signs of trouble in the wake of the collapse.McGuinness stated that buildings older than 30 years should be assessed before their 40-year deadlines.
Florida building officials pointed out that those who performed the dozens of inspections were not assigned to look for cracks in concrete or find water damage.Claudio Grande, a former building inspector and inspector who served multiple South Florida municipalities, stated that the job of building officials was to enforce the Florida building code’s requirements, not perform structural reviews.
He said that “the fact is that the engineers will provide us with a report” on whether a building’s safety is assured. This refers to engineers hired by property owners.
Guillermo Olmedillo was a Surfside former town manager. He noted that inspectors who visit buildings to inspect permits are skilled in certain trades like electrical wiring or air conditioning repair, and not structural engineering.
“It’s almost like doctors. If I visit a cardiologist can he tell if there is something wrong in my endocrinology?”Olmedillo was curious.
He noted, however, that inspectors could flag any concerns to city officials and employees.
Daily Reuters spoke with several contractors who worked in Champlain Towers South. They said that inspectors from the town were professional and diligent.
Jeff Rose, a general contractor, said that his parents owned a unit in this building and weren’t there when it fell on them. He didn’t blame the town inspectors sent to the building to check permits for not raising the alarm.
Rose said that if you want to inspect someone’s flooring, you should get out of your car and check-in with security. Then, go into the elevator and check the floor in that unit.“Never would I randomly walk around a building to inspect it.”
He stated that he expected the rules to change after the collapse and require more frequent inspections of structural issues. This would “give people the peace of mind they need.”
The 2018 report of the engineer warned that there was “major structural damage” at least one official from the town government had seen it.Rosendo Prieto was the town’s ex-head building official. A condo board member sent a copy to him. He told residents that the building was in “very good shape” just a few short days later, according to the minutes of a meeting. Daily Reuters obtained the minutes from the board meeting.
Grande, the former official, stated that Prieto, who has not replied to Daily Reuters’s requests to comment, should have prioritized the issue and ensured that the association responded quickly to the damage.
He looked at the report, which basically stated that the building was unsafe and required priority. Grande went ahead and informed the condo association that the building was in good condition.Grande stated, “Don’t worry about that.”
First responders are still searching through the debris of Champlain Towers South. Real estate professionals and government officials around Florida are looking into stricter regulations that require more frequent inspections of buildings’ structural integrity.
Jason Pizzo (Democratic State Senator) from Surfside has stated that he plans to push for new legislation regarding condo inspections during the next session of the legislature and hopes that the disaster will spur action.
Pizzo stated that “when we all go up to Tallahassee I don’t want everyone to forget and have only short-term memories of where we were at that moment,” Pizzo said to local TV station WPTV.
Florida State Bar created a task force made up of legal experts. This group will review condo laws in Florida and make recommendations to the legislature.A separate working group has been formed by engineering organizations to make their recommendations.
Allen Douglas, executive director of the Florida Engineering Society/American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida, and a member of this working group, said that the engineers’ task force is currently studying “what inspections should entail” and “who can perform them.”This could include a state-wide rule or varying regulations throughout the state.He said that municipalities located along the coast and susceptible to saltwater intrusion or sea spray might be subject to stricter inspections.
The state passed a law in 2008 that required condo associations to have engineers conduct financial and maintenance studies on their buildings at least once every five years.Despite criticisms from property managers and real estate lawyers, the rule was removed in 2010.
Florida law requires condo boards to maintain common areas. However, Glazer, a condo attorney, said that “nobody” is looking to determine if condo boards do so.“You are on the honor system.”He suggested that the state require condo owners to make repairs and to require local building officials to conduct regular structural inspections.
Governor.Ron DeSantis is not open to discussing possible changes in building regulations following the collapse. He stated last week that he believes the Champlain Towers building had “problems from the beginning.”
DeSantis stated that if there was something that could have wider implications than Champlain Towers then we will take it and do what is necessary.
Some officials from the county and city are also considering possible changes.Scott Singer, Boca Raton’s mayor, said that his staff is currently drafting an ordinance that would require buildings to be recertified after 30 years or less.
He stated that he had spoken to engineers whose phones were “ringing off-the-hook” with people trying to schedule inspections.
He stated that “people should be confident that the Surfside tragedy is an extremely rare event” and that they want to take proactive steps to improve their safeguards so it doesn’t happen again.“Everyone is determined to stop this rare occurrence from ever again.”