Ask the Architect

Why do buildings fail?


Several times a year I have the privilege of speaking to high school students about careers. A student recently asked the following question: How often do you see buildings fall down, and how can you prevent that?

A. Fortunately, we don’t see buildings fall very often, but failures occur many times a week. I, too, wonder how the problem(s) could have been avoided. They usually start with a lack of thought or respect for how things are put together.

Usually, a big problem, whether dangerous, like a structure about to collapse, or expensive, like a costly repair or loss of property, can be prevented if the last set of hands, and the first person who deviates from the building plans or defies common sense, just takes a breath and decides to communicate first. Simple bad decisions turn into nightmares for building owners, whether it’s a house without correct insulation or a big building with no waterproofing around the foundation. If concrete installers leave out $8,000 in waterproofing, that will lead to $300,000 of lost inventory every time the ground is saturated from heavy rainfall. Poor insulation will lead to increasing bills for 100-plus years.

With many thousands of reasons why a building will fail, when someone has no respect for building plans or for what nature can do, a simple bad decision caused by a need to save money or time can be a disaster. It isn’t the kind of disaster that makes the news, although there was a recent report about a dormitory at Parsons School of Design that was evacuated because of heavy mold. The economic and health implications could have been prevented by adding venting to the wall cavities during construction, but that requires knowledge, details and skill that was ignored. The day before that, a news story reported that actor Brad Pitt (who attended architecture school at the University of Missouri before being discovered) is suing the architect of homes built after Hurricane Katrina because they leak.

Buildings are made of systems, and not understanding or respecting how systems perform leads to failure — not necessarily the kind of dramatic failure like a collapse, but equally expensive and life-threatening. A slow death from illness is still a catastrophe. Unfortunately, the public is generally not well-protected. When a deviation from the planned system happens, instead of assigning responsibility to the last set of hands to touch the problem or the construction company that deviates, building officials simply ask for a third party, usually the architect or engineer, to just write a letter saying that the deviation is OK. Sadly, most design professionals will just do it, which is kind of like paying a speeding ticket you got in the mail for some total stranger in Denver. Because the real party responsible for the problems is not held responsible, failures will persist from project to project. Enforcement that generally is not practiced only perpetuates the failure.

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.