WEST PALM BEACH — The deadly condominium collapse in Surfside hung over a series of panel discussions in West Palm Beach on Tuesday as engineers and building safety officials discussed what can be done to make structures in Florida safer.
Engineers, inspectors and safety officials discuss ways to make buildings in Florida safer during a series of panel discussions held Tuesday at the Hilton Hotel next to the Palm Beach County Convention Center.
Jon Pasqualone, executive director of the Florida Fire Marshals and Inspectors Association, said it's unrealistic to presume that whatever changes experts suggest won't get sucked into a political vortex.
"All disasters are
political," he said. "Surfside is political. That little
tropical storm that just went through (the Florida
Panhandle) will be political. Until we fix the politics,
we're not going to fix the problem."
And that problem, Pasqualone said, is clear.
"Those buildings are getting older," he said. "They are not getting newer. Whose problem is that? There has to be a mechanism to deal with that. There's a problem, and that problem needs to be fixed."
Safety starts with homeowner associations and building inspections
A couple of themes came up repeatedly during the panel discussions: cost-conscious and politically powerful homeowner associations and the fact that only Miami-Dade and Broward counties require buildings to be recertified for safety every 40 years.
Homeowner associations, often comprised of older residents whose numbers and consistent voting patterns make them a political force, have the authority in Florida to determine which experts examine their building and when.
"There needs to be a maintenance standard," said William Sklar, chairman of the Condominium Law and Life Advisory Task Force, a group created by the Florida Bar in the aftermath of the Surfside condo collapse. "There has to be a periodic inspection process. It should not be at the discretion of the (association) board. They want to save money. They go engineer shopping."
Champlain Towers was about to commence millions of dollars in repairs when it collapsed. The costs of those repairs were going to be borne by the association members, who, according to The New York Times, were facing assessments ranging from $80,000 to $200,000.
The association had been told the repairs had to be completed in order for the 41-year old building to be recertified.
Sklar said he'd like to see the state become more involved in setting maintenance standards and possibly in moving up the recertification timeline from 40 years to 25 or 30 years.
"There needs to be a uniform state standard, and it should start much earlier than 40 years," he said.
A new recertification proposal for Palm Beach County buildings is in the works
Building officials from across Palm Beach County are considering a new program that calls for recertification of buildings east of Interstate 95 every 25 years. Buildings west of Interstate 95 would be recertified every 35 years.
Saltwater is thought to speed the deterioration of buildings along the coast, prompting some experts to recommend earlier inspections of those structures.
Also on Tuesday, Palm Beach County commissioners heard an update of the recertification proposal put together by the League of Cities’ working group, made up of building officials from across the county.
Commissioners supported further discussions with the insurance industry, property managers, engineers and other parties. They indicated no qualms with the proposed frequency of the inspections, the need for electrical or waterproofing review or specifically which buildings should undergo regular scrutiny.
Taking commissioners’ apparent satisfaction as a green light to move forward, Assistant County Administrator Patrick Rutter said staff would return to the board “in a couple months” with a more polished document.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay urged staff to be mindful of the start of the legislative session, which will convene in January.
“I’d rather have something on the local level before they draft a pre-emption,” she said.
Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth expressed apprehension over their ability to control the repairs that would need to be done, ultimately paid for by condo owners. He pointed to reports that the Champlain Towers South board knew about structural issues from a 2018 engineering report, but struggled with levying assessments on residents.
Another concern Weinroth had was the overload this program may have on structural engineers.
“I think we need to have a recertification program, but think we also need to recognize that Surfside may be an aberration and we don’t need to be responding with our hair on fire; that we need to take this carefully and make sure that we are doing this in a proper process and not create more problems in our zeal to protect our residents from a potential calamity like we saw in Surfside,” Weinroth said.
Residents need to know building codes, inspection timelines
Panelists on Tuesday said it is important for residents to know that building codes and even a rigorous inspection and recertification regime won't guarantee that all building failures will be prevented.
William Bracken, executive vice president of J.S. Held, a global construction and safety consulting firm, pointed to figures from the International Code Council showing that "80 percent of the buildings you go into and out of on a daily basis do not comply with current code."
That doesn't mean the buildings are unsafe. Buildings generally are only required to remain up to the code in place at the time of their construction.
Bill Truex, president of a construction company and a Charlotte County Commissioner, said he has seen shoddy work that could threaten public safety.
"I don't now how you put in protections against the corner cutters," he said. "How do we hold contractors accountable when they take short cuts?"