Ask the Architect

Rethinking a high-rise condo

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Q, My wife and I bought a condo on the top floor in a tall building on the beach and have lived there for seven years. Now she wants to sell because she’s worried about what happened to the building in Surfside, Fla. What went wrong, and how can I persuade her to keep our home, short of hiring an engineer to come take a look and reassure her?

A. You should assure your wife that her concerns are very real and it is all right to be concerned. Validate her feelings and be understanding, because many people in the same situation, in taller buildings, are questioning the safety of where they live. Questioning and confirming are what keep us safe, no matter what the issue is or where we are.

Ignoring or dismissing a potential problem doesn’t make it go away. Applying knowledge and reason leads to security. Many people assume, with most things, that some qualified person simply took care of a problem, solved it correctly, and kept us safe. I often share my calculation process with clients, showing them the reasoning behind steps taken to calculate a beam, for example, for two reasons. One is so they understand how buildings work, and also so that when a substitution is requested, they understand why it was rejected.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of assumptions that work is being done with correctness and conscientiousness. With larger buildings, there are many safety procedures, including independent certification by qualified consultant engineering professionals. You might feel better if your building hired an engineer who could explain the building’s structural system and how it keeps you safe. If the people living in the Surfside condominiums could have questioned and acted with a maintenance program, which would have required spending money, things might have been different. The design, review, construction and maintenance all played a part in the failure.

Look at your own building’s track record and ask informed questions. If you have no knowledge of the building process, ask others who do. The more I learn about the investigation of the collapse, the more convinced I am of the reasons for never ignoring the smallest details of how these giant custom jigsaw puzzles fit together. Every failure I have ever learned about had at least two common denominators, confidence and naïveté.

If a reinforcing rod is shown on the drawings to be a specific diameter, don’t substitute a smaller size because it was more available or install separate pieces where a continuous rod was supposed to go. The pool deck of that building was a separate structure that should never have been tied into the columns of the taller adjacent building, just like a deck should have minimal or no attachment to a house. The right force, wind or water, can pull a vertical support column sideways, rendering the column useless and toppling the taller structure. Listen to your wife and have a happy life!

© 2021 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.

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