After Surfside collapse, Miami-Dade governments check on older buildings, discuss reform
"We talk about structures, but in the end, it's about people and making sure that they are safe," said Key Biscayne Village Manager Steve Williamson
By Linda Robertson, Douglas Hanks, Samantha J. Gross, and Martin Vassolo
The Miami Herald
MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. — The sudden and deadly collapse of Surfside's Champlain Towers South has sent ripples of concern through Miami-Dade County as residents living in tall buildings wonder if their condominiums and apartments are being properly looked after.
Politicians say they are concerned, too, and local governments are beginning to act.
Florida has one of nation's most stringent building codes, and county rules require owners of older buildings to submit reports from licensed engineers or architects certifying a building's safety or documenting needed repairs after 40 years, then every 10 years after that, to meet recertification standards.
But local governments are looking inward after Thursday's partial collapse at the Champlain Towers South, which was built in 1981 and had been in the middle of a 40-year renovation process when it collapsed in the middle of the night, killing at least 11 and leaving 150 unaccounted for.
"We have 100-year-old concrete buildings in South Florida that have stood the test of time," said John Pistorino, the Miami engineer who authored the 40-year recertification policy. "If you maintain it, and fulfill your obligation to take care of it, it will last. Problems occur when owners or condo boards resist spending money except on interior assets rather than the underside of the building."
The city of Miami Beach, whose northern border is just feet from the collapse site in neighboring Surfside, has begun doing visual inspections of the 507 buildings in the city that currently require 40-year recertifications under county law. On Friday, the city of Miami's building department announced it will request citywide inspections of all buildings six stories or taller that are 40 years or older.
Miami-Dade County dispatched two inspectors Monday to start visiting about two dozen aging apartment and condominium buildings facing violations from the county.
Miami-Dade housing complexes on list of violators
That list of alleged violators includes the county itself. On Monday, the Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, which regulates the county building code, released a list of 24 properties that are part of an emergency audit of older buildings facing violations for not complying with the 40-year recertification process. Most of the entries involve condominium complexes, including at least portions of Jade Wind on the 1700 block of Northeast 2nd St., portions of Lake Park on the 900 block of Northeast 199th Street, and Peppermill at Kendale Lakes on the 8000 block of Southwest 149th Avenue.
Also on the list are two county-owned public housing properties: Little River Plaza at 8255 NW Miami Court and the Ward Towers 1 building at 2200 NW 54th St. Details on the violations were not immediately available.
While Miami-Dade manages public housing complexes, funding for maintenance comes from the federal government, and county administrators say the dollars have never matched needs for the aging buildings.
The Village of Key Biscayne, where more than half of its 13,000 residents live in a condominium building, began the process Monday of compiling a list of properties that have either had 40-year recertifications, are coming due for 40-year recertifications or were built before Hurricane Andrew when the building code was weaker. Village Manager Steve Williamson and a team of village department heads will prioritize those buildings for further inspection.
The town of Surfside hired a structural engineer to investigate the cause of the collapse and check on nearby buildings.
Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer said that while the small town of less than 6,000 residents has the attention of Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden, the town should seriously consider reforms to the recertification process — like requiring inspections take place sooner than 40 years and taking "a closer look at what's happening on our beaches."
"This is horrible, this is tragic," Salzhauer said at a special commission meeting Friday.
Eugenio Santiago, a licensed structural engineer and former building chief for Key Biscayne, inspected more than 3,000 buildings during his 52-year career.
"Building inspectors are in a tough position because you get hired by a client to evaluate possible problems and then the owner doesn't want to spend the money or the condo association wants to save every penny and puts off repairs or sticks the report in the drawer," Santiago said. "We notify building officials if we find major problems. Most people are willing to comply with needed repairs. Condo associations are supposed to set aside money for the 40-year recertification that they know can cost millions in repair and restoration work.
"Yes, it is inconvenient and expensive but are you going to weigh inconvenience versus death?"
Williamson, the Key Biscayne manager, said the collapse gives municipalities a chance "to look inward."
The village is going to be "digging deeper" and looking at 75 buildings which are older than 40 years. Most of them are fully certified, Williamson said, but nine are coming up on their 40-year mark, four are coming up on their 50-year mark and four more are coming up on 60 years.
The village has also decided to begin giving notice of recertifications to buildings one year ahead of the date, then six months. The county requires notice to be given 90 days, but a wider window will help owners and associations find engineers and raise the money for eventual repairs.
Residents will have the chance to ask questions at a special village meeting Thursday night.
"We take this seriously," said Williamson, who came into the job last month. "We talk about structures, but in the end, it's about people and making sure that they are safe."
Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Góngora, who is a condominium association attorney, proposed during a special commission meeting Monday that the city inspect its low-income senior housing after residents reported leaking and other issues at their buildings.
He said the city should hear from experts about what possible improvements can be made to the recertification process, such as requiring they be completed earlier or including a geological survey as part of the inspection. He is also interested in asking how a saturation of development or building on the coast affects building safety.
"We can't make decisions in a vacuum right now," he said. "Nobody really knows for sure what happened."
Miami-Dade 'audit' of older buildings underway
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced an "audit" of residential buildings outside city limits due for recertifications. The aging buildings that inspectors began visiting Monday are due for recertifications after 40 years, but haven't obtained them and are far enough behind to face "unsafe structure" violations.
Miami-Dade created the 40-year recertification requirement in 1974, and Broward County adopted similar rules in 2005.
"It's above and beyond the Florida building code," said Edward Rojas, who oversees permitting for Miami-Dade as county building official. "It's unique to Miami-Dade and Broward."
Pistorino said the 40-year recertification policy was written after the 1974 collapse of a 30-year-old office building in downtown Miami that was leased by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Seven people died. That building failed because of concrete deterioration, Pistorino said.
"Buildings are supposed to be maintained from the day they are built. You don't wait 40 years," he said. "The 40-year milestone was a compromise. We had and continue to have pushback from owners who say it should be 50 or 60 or 70 years because of the costs involved. When they complain, our building officials pull out photos of the 1974 collapse and explain that this is why we have it, this is why we need the authority to enforce it with citations or evacuation orders."
There are more than 2,000 buildings overdue on certifications from Miami-Dade, Rojas said, and 24 of those are in violation and mesh with the mayor's audit criteria of being residential and at least five stories tall. County inspectors are also visiting multi-family buildings with four stories, Rojas said.
Ricardo Roig, Miami-Dade's assistant director for code compliance at the Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, said county staff reviews recertification reports as they arrive. But he said the professionals hired to inspect the buildings are required to notify authorities if they find any flaws that could cause a building to collapse.
"The engineer has a responsibility, if he sees an imminent danger, to notify us. And they do," Roig said. He said local governments will allow emergency repairs to begin immediately without permits if a building is facing that kind of disrepair.
He and Rojas said they didn't want to speculate on how to interpret the 2018 recertification report filed with Surfside for Champlain Towers South that identified a "major error" that may have led to concrete deterioration in the complex. But Rojas noted the report didn't contain the kind of language that would suggest emergency repairs were needed to address immediate danger.
"I have seen plenty of these reports," Rojas said. "It didn't say there was an imminent collapse happening. It did say there were deficiencies that needed fixing."
Miroslav "Misha" Miladenovic, an engineer and founder of the M2E firm in Miami, said the challenge often comes when an engineer gets hired by a condo board and delivers an expensive punch list of repairs needed to pass a 40-year recertification process. That bad news can be poorly received, followed by an effort to find better news.
"A prudent board would listen to the engineer and do what the engineer says needs to be done," Mladenovic said. "That's not always the case. If the same board shops for an engineer that tells what they want to hear, then it's not the process that doesn't work."
'Are we doing enough?'
Santiago said Miami-Dade is known throughout the nation for its strict building codes and the 40-year recertification process, which most cities do not require.
"Forty years should be sufficient and it's worked for a long time, but a lot depends on who is notified of problems and how they react," Santiago said. "We ask a lot more here than anywhere else in the state. Are we doing enough? Maybe it is time to be more strict and more inclusive so that we can look more closely at more elements."
Santiago recalled one job where he warned a building owner in Hallandale Beach about cracking and structural problems "and he didn't want to spend the money, so he fired me and I told the building department about what I'd found."
Based on what happened in the Champlain tower collapse — where the engineering firm cited in a 2018 report the inability to get a close look at the pool deck slab and parts of the parking garage — Santiago suggested a change in the 40-year recertification rules that would require owners to allow a certain percentage of exposure to hidden areas so that inspectors can examine what is happening beneath, above or behind tile, carpet, plaster, ceilings and walls.
"When a building is occupied a lot is hidden from sight," he said. "If a slab has tile or carpet you can't expose the surface to see the cracks. Maybe add a requirement to remove that covering or remove a ceiling, for example."
Santiago said an inspection entails looking for major signs of distress and quantifying them.
"Concrete is a material that gives you a chance to see what's happening and fix it in time," he said. "Those cracks in the Surfside building should have been taken care of and not ignored. They didn't just appear in 2018. They probably started to be visible in 2011, 2012."
"If I lived in a condo, I'd be a little worried because what happened was so unexpected and we can't put a finger on the cause until it is investigated."
After Hurricane Andrew, the requirement that 40-year-old buildings be recertified by electrical engineers was added in 1993.
The South Florida Building Code, first adopted in 1957, is one of the most rigorous in the nation because it was written to protect structures from "our aggressive environment — the salt air, the sea and hurricanes," Pistorino said.
"Our rules, our standards, the safety factors in design, our requirements for workmanship, our threshold building inspection law, our product approval system, our peer-review system — it all adds up to an excellent reputation nationwide because we know the demands put on buildings in South Florida are high in our harsh conditions," he said. "In the last few days, I've been fielding calls from building and government officials around Florida who want to adopt our recertification program."
Pistorino, who will be involved in the investigation of the Champlain tower collapse, said it will be like an autopsy, like the reassembly of an airplane after a crash.
"We know some of the symptoms in Surfside but we don't know the cause and it's not right to speculate," he said, later adding: "I'm not going to yell 'fire' in a theater. I would feel safe in a unit in one of these buildings."
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