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Surfside condo collapse exposes gaps in Florida's inspection process

Facade inspections are mandated every 5-years in about a dozen cities, none we found in Fla.
Building Collapse Miami
Posted at 9:48 PM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-13 21:48:42-04

At the site where Champlain Towers South once stood, a mountain of rubble remains a disastrous and heartbreaking reminder of loss, failures and questions.

Each day for the past three weeks, the county's Mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, has had the tragic task of announcing the number of new victims recovered from the collapse. On Tuesday, the total number of confirmed casualties had reached 95.

But with each day also comes the discovery of possible reasons that may have contributed to the 12-story condominium's sudden overnight collapse. The building had documented problems. As part of the building's county-mandated 40-year recertification, an engineering report flagged the building for having "major structural damage" after waterproofing issues were identified near the pool deck and in the parking garage.

But would more frequent inspections have saved the building and more, importantly, the people inside?

"There is no question more frequent inspections could have possibly prevented this," said Eric Glazer, a South Florida-based condo attorney who writes a condo blog and hosts a weekly radio show focused on condominium law.

When asked if Florida has good rules on the books when it comes to building inspections, Glazer didn't hesitate.

"If you consider basically zero inspections that are required good, then I guess we're good, but the reality is we're pretty bad," he said.

In Florida, other than a 40-year recertification adopted just in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Glazer said there is no requirement for high-rise inspections at all.

"The building is built by a developer, they get their certificate of occupancy, and, in some counties, they may never see a building official again," Glazer said.

There's little doubt the Surfside condo tragedy will change that, but how and how often remains unknown.

Current state law leaves much of building rule-making to local governments who are re-evaluating their own inspection and maintenance rules following the Surfside tragedy.

One inspection we couldn't find mandated in Florida is part of a 5-year routine inspection in about a dozen U.S. cities, most of them big cities. It's called a facade inspection. Experts describe it as a probe into the exterior wall of buildings which, often, show the first signs of abuse from weather and water.

"Facade inspections are to find things that can be overhead fall hazards or a danger to the public," said Bill Payne, a structural engineer and Vice-President of O & S Associates. His firm, which has an office in South Florida, had an engineer conduct a walk-through of Champlain Towers South before submitting a proposal to do work on the building as part of its 40-year recertification.

With Florida's typography leaving much of the state nestled against saltwater, Payne believes facade inspections should be a natural part of Florida's building inspection process.

"Any building over 6 feet where you get the deterioration mechanisms and the public safety hazards to converge, the 5- year inspection is a really prudent thing to do," Payne said.

Still, more frequent inspections and more stringent maintenance rules will only be as powerful as those who enforce them.

Many local building departments are understaffed, which leaves trusting building maintenance to those who oversee the building or, in the case of condominiums, condo boards. However, condo boards are voluntary and often made up of people with little to no building knowledge who represent residents with, often, little desire to pay for pricey repairs.

"Boards are very reluctant to tell each unit owner, 'guess what guys, here comes a $50,000 assessment or more.' So instead of doing that, repairs are kicked down the road," said Glazer, who added he has seen for himself how many Florida condo boards don't have the money in reserves to pay for major repairs. Reserves are supposed to maintain enough money to pay for repairs that are over $10,000.

"It's time for the Florida legislature to say you're not going to waive reserves anymore because if you're living in a condo and your assessments each month are very low, you're living a lie, that's it," he said.

A task force of Florida attorneys will review current condo laws and make recommendations to the Governor about possible regulatory changes. Glazer would also like to see a law requiring condo board members to take a class before serving on a board. Glazer currently teaches a 3-hour class.

"The laws will definitely change going forward. I certainly would like to think more frequent inspections and reserves will be funded, and there will be a mandatory class; that's what I hope happens here," Glazer said.