Will my building collapse?

A look into condominium safety in the wake of the Surfside collapse


In light of the recent collapse of the condominium building in Surfside, Florida, there have been a number of concerns from residents and owners about the safety of their own condominiums.

As a resident of a condominium building in Ottawa, is there a reason to be concerned about the structural integrity of your building?

In short, the answer is probably not.

Structural collapses are rare. The government of Ontario requires continual maintenance of condominium buildings to help prevent any major issues from arising. This also prevents delay or postponements of structural or other engineering studies, which in turn increases the safety of the building.

The Surfside Collapse - what went wrong?

It is important to understand the various factors that contributed to the collapse of the Surfside condominium, and the precise mechanism of collapse may never be known. The 13-story building was built approximately 40 years ago and in service under very different environmental conditions. It is important to understand the role of environmental factors in this collapse. With the condominium being built oceanside, significant damage was caused by years of exposure to corrosive salty air and saltwater. There were reports of persistent water leaks as well as saltwater flooding the parking garage. The constant exposure to saltwater in the basement of the building could have contributed to some structural deterioration of the building.

There were also a number of significant warning signs prior to the collapse.

In 2018, an engineer warned of “major structural problems to the concrete slab below the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams, and walls of the parking garage under the 13-story building.” (New York Times, June 26).

Outside of environmental factors, there were several other causes for concern including high board turnover and delays to proposed work.

Experts said that the process of assessing what ultimately caused the building’s structure to fail could take months. This process involves a review of individual building components that may now be buried in debris, the testing of concrete to assess its integrity, and an examination of the earth below to see if a sinkhole or other subsidence was responsible for the collapse.

A Photo of the Surfside Collapse in Florida, taken on June 24, 2021. Credit: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

What measures are in place in Ontario to prevent this?

There are a number of measures in place here in Ontario to help prevent a collapse like this from ever occurring, including enforcement of modern building codes at the time of construction, and continuing maintenance through the reserve fund study process. Let's discuss these complementary tools...

The Ontario Building Code is put into place to ensure the safety of structures at the time of construction. New construction is rigidly held to this standard, and the standard itself is ever-evolving to meet the current needs of the public. The building code and the references standards to which it refers are enforced by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) and this is all done in a systematic and diligent manner by well-trained, professional staff. The entire process is further overseen and underwritten by the Tarion New Home Warranty Corporation, with their own professionals and knowledgeable staff constantly looking to reduce or eliminate construction errors, and improve the quality of the residential built environment in Ontario. In short, you can be confident that your Condo was reasonably well built. Is it being maintained?

Maintenance matters. The core of your building's health moving forward is the Reserve Fund Study. Reserve Fund Studies are more than just another safety measure and mandated by the government of Ontario, they are the last line of defense against the unthinkable. These studies include site inspections which are done every six years and reviews being done every three years, generally by structural engineers. Ideally, they should be done by a team of professional specialists including Structural, Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, and Fire Engineers, but not all boards decide to go to that extent. At a minimum, they outline if any significant repairs will need to be done to your building. The more detailed reports carried out by a team of specialists can also be conducted, such as a Depreciating Asset Study (DAS). Condo Boards should be able to supply a copy of your latest Reserve Fund Study. It is important that all residents review through their Boards’ communications, the RFS' Executive Summary, and the Status Certificate.

The importance of your building's maintenance can perhaps be best summarized by our colleagues at Capacity Engineering Ltd., Senior Structural Engineer Maurice Quinn, P.Eng., “Maintenance is a matter of time, not a matter of choice. A dollar saved now requires that ten be spent later. Buildings do not stop deteriorating because you defer a repair.”

What can I do as an owner?

A condo corporation is a multi-million dollar asset and should be maintained professionally. It is important not to cut corners, too many owners want the cheapest solutions which can often comprise the longevity of the building.

A few things you can do as an owner:

  • Be observant. Recommended maintenance is carried out and report any changes you see in your building structure. Remember, the Professional Engineers who write your Reserve Fund Studies are not there every day - you are.

  • Get involved. Your board works hard to manage your building(s) - extra volunteers are always appreciated. Also, attend the AGM and any special meetings.

  • Choose an engineering firm with a proven track record for maintaining buildings, not just repairing them. Your Reserve Fund Study should talk about preventative maintenance, if it doesn’t it is not as thorough as it could be.

“An engaged and informed group of owners and Board members ensures that the property has the proper oversight. This is always the first and most important element of having a property that is proactively professionally managed.”


About Capacity Engineering Limited

Capacity Engineering Limited is a small engineering firm working primarily in Consulting Engineering and Project Management. Their work includes the analysis and design of diverse structures, preparation of maintenance programs, detailed structural condition assessments, as well as forensic investigations and fire engineering. Their firm takes particular interest in areas that require specialized skill with respect to existing structures.


About Capital Integral Property Management

Capital Integral Property Management provides condominium management services in the National Capital Region. Their team of experts specialize in Condominium, Commercial, and Rental Property Management and are Canada's first carbon neutral property management company.


Sources:

Baker, M., Singhvi, A., and Mazzei, P., Engineer Warned of ‘Major Structural Damage’ at Florida Condo Complex (June 26, 2021) https://www.nytimes.com/

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