The recent tragedy of the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Florida has spotlighted the needs and struggles facing many condominium associations, and their residents, around the country. While no one can guarantee an event such as this will never happen again, associations governing high-rise buildings similar to the Champlain Towers should not be panicking during this time. Associations should be taking the time to not only examine the structure of their buildings but the structure of the association as a whole.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the obvious concerns many high-rise condominium associations are facing is with the integrity of their building. Professional Engineer David Yancy, owner of Criterium-Yancy Engineers in Houston, says board members and residents need to watch for signs both within and outside of their building. Within the building signs of structural movement and deterioration may include but are not limited to cracking around the framed openings of doors and/or windows, sagging floors, and things such as doors that were once operating properly not closing like they should. Exterior symptoms of structural movement or deterioration may include damage and/or cracks in the façade, concrete spalling, slopes developing on surfaces intended to be level, as well as revered sloping of components with an as-built slope. These are all signs the building may be experiencing adverse conditions and you should have an inspection. Depending on the severity and quantity of the signs, a general contractor may only be needed, Yancy said. But for more severe or chronic signs, an inspection by a qualified professional will become necessary.
If a qualified professional is called, they will typically assess the situation and propose a scope of work to evaluate either the façade or the façade and the building’s structure. “These inspections start as general examinations and become more detailed once a better understanding of the building’s condition is known,” Yancy said. A general inspection is typically visual in nature and may involve some quantitative analysis (i.e. measurements of structural elements) while a detailed inspection may involve activities that include non-destructive testing, all the way to destructive investigations and material testing, “It is important that the building’s as-built plans be made available (if possible) so they can be compared with the existing structure,” Yancy said. Yancy also points out that while his company, and others, offer Façade and Structural Inspections, the scope will vary from building to building as each is unique and has its own set of challenges.
When built properly, in the first 10 years of a building’s life, Yancy says most buildings do not exhibit any obvious signs of deterioration or instability. But after 15-20 years into a building’s life, lack of maintenance, age, design errors, construction errors or a combination of these factors cause the building to deteriorate and subsequently inspections are recommended every five years on a recurring basis. But, he adds, “if you see drastic changes or signs of deterioration in your building [involving the signs discussed above] in a short period of time, then it’s good to document the situation and proceed with an inspection by a qualified professional regardless of the timeframe.”
No matter the situation, “make sure your issues are well documented,” Yancy said. Be sure to include maintenance and repair records because this documentation helps your professional have something to reference when conducting the inspection.
A structural inspection of the building is not the only structural aspect of the association the Board should examine. The Board will also need to examine their reserves and insurance policies.
During a recent webinar, we discussed reserves and the reserve study process. “I’m promoting periodic structural inspection on top of a reserve study,” said Shareholder Marc Markel. While a reserve study alone would not paint the picture of problems within a structure, the reserve study in combination with an inspection can help you prepare for the future replacement of certain assets within the building by predicting the amount of funds the association will need to have saved to replace items such as the pool, roof and elevators based upon the expected lifetime of the asset. “Some of these repairs are very expensive and some are not,” Markel said.
One other aspect of the structure that should be routinely examined is the association’s insurance policies. The association should routinely examine their policies with their insurance agent to ensure they have the adequate coverage for the benefit of both the residents and the association and that the insurance is compliant with the law and the governing documents.
For the overall health and structure of the building and the association, it is important to regularly schedule consultations with professionals to consider inspections, reserve studies and insurance policy examinations to ensure the peace of mind for everyone in your community.
“If they get the counsel and they follow the advice from that group of experts, they are less likely to have issues. The ones that are more likely to have issues are the ones that say, ‘Well, if we followed all of your advice, we’d have to increase our fees by 20 percent and that wouldn’t be very popular,” Markel said.
“You don’t do what’s popular,” Markel added. “You do what’s right for the building.”