The Surfside collapse and the resulting loss of life is tragic. In addition to dealing with the far-reaching impact of that collapse, many occupants, owners, and managers of most buildings are now asking whether something similar could happen to their building. The answer is that the structural health and future of any building depends on many variables including age, climate, maintenance, structural materials used, renovations that have occurred, quality of construction, original design, and much more. No building will last forever.
The Surfside collapse has shined a bright light on building inspections, maintenance, reserve funding, and management. CAI task forces created in the wake of the condominium collapse—there were two that I served on including the Building Inspections Task Force and the Reserve Studies and Funding Task Force—will release public policy statements and best practice guidelines. Among the objectives for the CAI task forces efforts was to help guide public policy and legislative action toward reasonable and responsible standards since we should all expect widespread legislative action—no one wants a repeat of Surfside. (See side bar article on the Task Forces work on page 40.)
PLANNING FOR THE DEMANDS OF AN AGING BUILDING
In what I call Stage 2 aging, which takes into account the long-term deterioration of a building, when a building reaches 25 to 30 years old, there are more things to consider than those that are common to most reserve studies.
Many components such as roofs, paint, and HVAC equipment have predicable useful lives; their condition is visible, and they fall within the minimum 20-year (we use 30) study period recommended in the CAI Reserve Fund Guidelines. However, some expensive components such as underground piping and structural components (balconies, exposed framing, water intrusion related corrosion, or rot) have a longer expected useful life but will still need attention. What do you do about those conditions?
IDENTIFY AREAS OF CONCERN
First, the board should identify the areas of concern, then investigate, then plan for addressing the information revealed by the investigation; out of sight, out of mind does not mean those conditions can be ignored—aging and deterioration is inevitable.
For structures, deterioration is typically a slow process; severe weather events or seismic activity can accelerate the deterioration, but it still may take many years before a healthy building starts to show evidence of structural illness. In my opinion, all buildings of more than five stories should be thoroughly inspected by well-qualified individuals for structural soundness regularly: every 10 years for buildings less than 50 years old and every 5 years for buildings more than 50 years old.
CONDUCT STRUCTURAL INSPECTIONS
The structural health of most buildings must be determined by a structural engineer with the right combination of experience and expertise, and the qualifications to be accountable for their work. The presence of cracks in concrete, for example, does not mean much until you consider the location, pattern, size, and character of those cracks. Even structurally healthy buildings often have cracks. Age almost always matters, however, being young doesn’t mean that building is structurally sound. Every building is unique, and the structural inspection of that building should respond to that uniqueness. Age, location, and structural materials are big factors in guiding inspection priorities and procedures.
For inspection protocol, we recommend a two-phase approach:
- Phase one is a visual examination for evidence of significant structural distress, and then, depending on the results of phase one,
- proceed with phase two, a more in-depth investigation, possibly including destructive testing.
When possible, the original construction drawings would be reviewed as part of phase one.
INCLUDE FINDINGS IN RESERVE FUND STUDY
The structural inspection report (or other in-depth investigation such as elevators or video examination of underground piping) should then be provided to the Reserve Specialist who would include it in the Reserve Fund Study done for that building, including estimated costs. Reserve Studies should be done (or updated) at least every five years. Reserve Fund Studies are projections for repair or replacement of existing assets. They are a budgeting tool; they are not an in-depth building evaluation.
All of this means more work for the board or management company that should identify systems or components that deserve in-depth investigations and then retain appropriately qualified experts to conduct those investigations. Consultants familiar with buildings and building systems (such as some engineering companies and Reserve Specialists) can assist the board or management company with identifying the investigations that are needed. The resulting reports should be shared with the Reserve Specialist to include in the Reserve Fund Study to assure that the recommended reserve contributions include the results of those investigations. That may mean a significant increase in reserve contributions.
Unfortunately, condo boards are often the roadblock in the process. They get important information from qualified professionals and don’t act on it. My personal experience includes many similar situations.
Why? When the studies and investigations reveal needed work that will require increased funding from the owners, that information may not get past the board to be shared with the owners, or, if it does reach the owners, it may get defeated by a vote of the owners. In some states, associations can even choose not to fund a reserve. CAI is aware of some state and federal legislation that is being considered to mandate structural inspections, assure adequate reserve funding, and mandate action to address the issues revealed.
Being a board member is tough! It involves fiduciary responsibility, accountability, and liability. It means answering to your constituents and it’s a “highly paid” volunteer position. A good management company will make good recommendations, but the board must make the decisions, and that may mean being unpopular with the owners, some of whom may be your friends and neighbors. I have been a president of an HOA board, so I understand the challenge.
Full disclosure and good communication are best. Our buildings are getting older, and we are being challenged to plan for that effectively. A better understanding of your building is the best place to start.
Article written by H. Alan Mooney, P.E., R.S., Criterium Engineers Founding President
Published in Condo Media October 2021 edition
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