As news broke on June 24 regarding a deadly collapse of a 12-story oceanfront condominium in Surfside, Fla., Benjamin Schafer, Williard and Lillian Hackerman Chair, spoke with Scientific American regarding structural engineering and the long-term significance of the event for building designers. Below is an excerpt from the article, which can be viewed in its entirety on the publication’s website.
How are structural engineers reacting to the collapse of Champlain Towers South?
Buildings don’t fail frequently, and the field takes very seriously the need to learn when failures do happen, particularly failures for which there isn’t just some obvious, large, external precipitating event that we didn’t account for. Collapses in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the Kemper Arena roof collapse and walkway collapses at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, both in Kansas City, Mo., made the field question its design processes and led to improvements in construction and how we utilize computerized structural analysis. When earthquakes occur, we have a history of trying to get to the bottom of what happened and then changing our field in response. What’s disturbing about this latest failure in Florida is that even early conjectures about what went wrong don’t give us a lot of clues yet as to what we need to be doing differently. If this is just a corrosion issue, then, my goodness, the number of buildings that have corrosion issues in the U.S. is high. If this is a foundation issue, then perhaps we can figure out the more detailed cause and then go from there. There are lots of uncertainties that may have not been considered in 1981, when the design of Champlain Towers South was completed.
What sorts of past events and failures have led to changes in the designs of buildings in the modern era?
A lot of them have been earthquakes. The 1994 Northridge earthquake [in California] changed a lot of thinking around how we design buildings in earthquake-prone areas in the U.S. and around the world. In 1968 in [England], a resident’s gas stove explosion took out 22 stories of a building called Ronan Point, killing four people. That event marked the beginning of a growing focus on concerns about building collapses. In 2017 the Grenfell Tower fire in London spread to the building’s facade and then around the whole building. That is having a big impact on what should be allowed in the design of facades. And that’s why there’s such an interest, I think, in this particular failure in Surfside, Fla., because we don’t yet understand it.