Max building fail in Miami

Collapsed sections of Champlain Towers in Florida. (NYT/Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse)

Aside from expressing sorrow and dismay, it is too early to say anything definitive about the beachfront building collapse in Surfside, Fla., north of Miami. The 12-story Champlain Towers condominiums opened in 1981 with 136 apartments. About half of the units were damaged or destroyed. Of the residents, as of Friday evening, four are confirmed dead, 37 have been rescued, 120 have been accounted for, and 159 are still missing, up from 99 yesterday. While many residents were apparently absent at 1:30 a.m. or so Thursday when it suddenly began to pancake, the death count is considered sure to rise sharply.

It is vital to learn the exact cause of this avoidable tragedy.

Most buildings that collapse in whole or in part do so during construction or during or after a hurricane or an earthquake. More than one-half of Champlain Towers collapsed early Thursday morning for no apparent reason. The building had passed inspections very recently as part of Florida’s mandated 40-year safety assessment, but rumors have emerged that 8777 Collins Ave. had been sinking at a rate of one or two millimeters per year, about the same rate as the Leaning Tower of Pisa until it was stopped in the 1990s.

The mind shrinks from contemplating what it must have been like to be inside the building as it began to topple. Most victims probably died instantly in their sleep, perhaps groggily aware for an instant or two of some noise and shaking, as if still in a dream state. Certainly few of those who did not escape survived long enough to guess what was happening. This may be of some comfort to survivors of loved ones now gone.

Several lucky survivors or witnesses have told reporters that “this does not happen in America.” Truly? The mind reels. And yet I can think of no equivalent to Thursday’s disaster. The worst collapse in Florida history, until now, was the five-story Harbour Cay, also a condominium building, which was near the end of construction when it gave way, killing 11 and injuring 23. Coincidentally, this tragedy occurred in 1981, the same year the Champlain Towers was completed.

Across the street from Champlain Towers is Eighty-Seven Park, an 18-story, 68-unit condo building designed by starchitect Renzo Piano, which opened last year. If nearby land was squishy, nearby construction might have aggravated the condition. According to an article on the collapse in The Conversation:

There was also construction work ongoing nearby, and investigators will need to consider whether this could have disturbed the foundations. This nearby construction work could have created ground movement under nearby buildings due to vibrations or deep excavations work.

Obviously no building falls down for no reason, and it’s far too early to assign blame. It is unfair to point a finger at the modernist design of the Champlain Towers, but it is entirely appropriate to wonder whether the differences between modernist and traditional architecture – or, if you prefer, differences between design and engineering practices past and present – might have played a role.

Buildings once were held up by load-bearing masonry walls. Materials were laid on thick to err on the side of caution. Then came structural steel upon which curtain wall was hung, after which the sheer solidity of construction grew more tenuous. Late in this span of time, reliance was placed on computer systems able to pinpoint the stress a structure could sustain – or so it was supposed.

Better able, to be sure, but as engineers relied more and more on computations of exactitude in the performance of materials under stress, the savings involved in attaining such precision became difficult to resist. Modernist architects ever eager to demonstrate their contempt for natural principles such as gravity put ever more pressure on engineers already weary of their usual helping of the sloppy seconds of architecture.

Architects Journal looks at potential causes of the collapse and offers a diagram (below) tracing the order in which different sections of the building collapsed.

Has modern engineering in the service of modern architecture, and in particular modernist skyscrapers, begun to cut things a little too fine? If you live in one of those supertall towers that increasingly mar the skyline in New York City and elsewhere, you might have given some thought to that possibility. This question, however it is phrased, must not be dodged or neglected as the fate of the doomed Champlain Towers is reviewed.

Diagram of apparent order in which building collapsed. (Architects Journal)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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8 Responses to Max building fail in Miami

  1. Pingback: Max building fail in Miami – Vista Real Estate

  2. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    Your tragedy reminds me the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington London in 2017. it caused 72 deaths, with 70 others who were injured and 223 people who survived. Although the method of destruction was different from Champlain Towers, people in London asked the same question you noted: Has modern engineering in the service of modern architecture, and in particular modernist skyscrapers, begun to cut things a little too fine?

    Soon after the Grenfell Tower burned to the ground, all high Australian towers went back and looked at their cladding and other potential crises.

    Like

  3. sethweine says:

    While it does not deal with foundations or skyscrapers, Quinlan Terry’s superb essay does cover the issue of Materials—and is well worth reading (and re-reading once-a-year) —
    https://qtarchitects.com/essays/essay-seven-misunderstandings/

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  4. Ron Thomas says:

    Might be time to go back and read novelist John D McDonald’s 1977 book “Condominium”

    Like

    • I actually thought of bringing up that book, Ron, which I read about three or four years ago, but then I recalled that it deals with the frailty of a building facing a hurricane. Even still, it has pertinent matter in it, and interesting technical lore. Helluva book. I really enjoyed it.

      Like

  5. LazyReader says:

    Tower of babel syndrome. Alot of Miami is artificial island, a building collapse due to sinking is only likely if one part of a building is sinking at a faster rate than another, which creates tensions that, in turn, weaken the building’s structure. Unlike buildings where engineers inspect the BUILDING, few engineers inspect the land. Downtown Chicago has about 15 feet of fill piled above the original ground level.

    Buildings built on artificial land are very questionable affair, if you don’t stabilize it to water/shifting you’re bound to make an error. Unless you dig a massive foundation. New York is Great for skyscrapers/high rise construction, because the bedrock is shallow, Stable and durable. Chicago built skyscrapers too, but the city is built on Lake muck so their solution was to DIG piles super deep to hold it’s early juggernauts after early attempts made buildings Sink into the ground. They worked……Miami is build on what used to be saturated soil/sand.

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  6. LazyReader says:

    Opponents of Traditional and Classical architecture assert such buildings are too expensive to construct today. Thus it’s ironic that “scientific” Modernism has just produced two of the most costly and over-budget structures in living memory. Worse, the cost overruns for these boondoggles are being paid for not by deep-pocketed billionaires but by the general public. Less to do with architectural style and tried engineering principles. Many of these large buildings have gotten so complicated that the design architect’s contribution is often little more than a sketch. It’s left to the structural engineers and the contractors to work out the burdensome details of how to actually put the building together. No wonder many of these “architectural icons” end up costing their owners much more than originally budgeted. This isn’t that scenario. It’s just another sad example of “Better, faster, cheaper” If you build on sandy terrain you have little/no bedrock to house a foundation so weight distribution is a matter of holes and columns. Fact is a 40 year old building collapsed probably because the stuff it’s made of didn’t last long.
    Building materials that last a long time
    Limestone
    Marble
    Lime concrete
    Clay bricks and tiles
    Slates
    Sandstone
    Heavy duty Steel Beams

    Materials that don’t last a long time
    Portland cement concrete
    lightweight Steel truss
    Reinforced concrete
    Reconstructed stone
    Pre-cast concrete
    Sandlime bricks
    Stainless steel
    Aluminum
    Laminated plastics

    Think of the Pantheon in Rome, built in brick and lime mortar. It has a diameter of 142 feet and has stood for nearly two thousand years. No reinforced concrete structure could last anything like so long because once air and moisture have penetrated to the reinforcement there is nothing which can permanently inhibit its breakdown. It does not even make a good ruin!

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