Surfside tragedy underscores the need for preventive condo maintenance

Date Published : Jul-02-2024

Written By : Kim Brown

Champlain Towers South, a 12-floor condominium in Surfside, Florida, partially collapsed while hundreds of owners were sleeping in June of 2021. The collapse was sudden, and resulted in mass casualties.

Three years have now passed since this disastrous event occurred, but the aftermath continues to impact the family and friends who lost loved ones in the collapse.

Hundreds of condominium communities, both in and outside of Florida, have also been affected by the collapse. It made condo owners think seriously about the structural integrity of their homes. Furthermore, it led some states to create new condo laws designed to prevent another condo collapse from ever happening again. 

   

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Hard lessons were learned, but if there is one, the silver lining is that proactive measures, such as regular inspections, preventive maintenance, adherence to building codes, and emergency preparedness planning, have been given a new level of importance.

Going forward, there are two key elements condominiums must prioritize in order to prevent another fatal event like the one that occurred in 2021:

  • Good structural health of the condo building 
  • Implementation of fiscally responsible budgeting

This article will primarily focus on the first element, but you can access comprehensive Community Associations Institute (CAI) resources for both subjects here. Both elements are essential because even if the association is keenly aware of structural issues, those problems cannot be resolved without money. 

   

Why did the Surfside collapse occur?

It is still not entirely clear what caused the Surfside condo tower to collapse. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is still in the process of producing a final report. But it has a much clearer picture of why the structure failed.

It was not just one issue, but several different problems that led to the collapse.

Investigators have suggested that water was the main culprit. Tests have indicated that the concrete used in the condo’s pool deck and in the columns that supported it was weaker than required by building codes. Moreover, extra weight from planters that were added to the pool area years later created too much stress on the deck and columns. The poor quality of the concrete allowed water from the deck to seep into the garage area under the pool, which sped up the corrosion of reinforcing steel in the support columns.

One of the NIST’s co-lead investigators said videos captured movement in the nearly 40-year-old tower structure before the collapse.

Investigators detailed numerous areas where the design and construction of Champlain Towers South failed to comply with building codes when it was constructed in 1981. Even though it was inspected and certified safe by the building’s engineer after it was complete, things were missed.

There is still debate about how much or little the condo board knew as well. Nine months before the collapse, engineering firm Morabito Consultants found severely deteriorated concrete throughout the building, including in load-bearing structures known as corbels.

According to a document acquired by NPR from an anonymous source, the company’s probe, conducted between June and October of 2020, found problems that had worsened since the last time the engineering firm conducted a study (2018). Engineers found evidence that part of the Surfside building’s load-bearing foundation might be compromised. “The areas of deteriorated concrete appeared to penetrate deep into wall/corbel construction,” the firm stated in a memo sent to the condo board in October 2020. The memo was included in the minutes of the association’s monthly meeting.

A spokesperson for the Surfside condo association board said the firm never issued a clear warning to its leadership or the residents of Champlain Towers South. Town officials said they weren’t notified of the findings either.

However, even if the board was unaware of how significant the findings were, there is evidence to show they did see the results of the 2018 probe. Furthermore, there was likely conflict between board members, mainly because so many residents were angered by the $15 million assessment of repair costs.

Though both parties played a role in the fatal accident, it’s clear that the condo association knew that there were problems, although it may have not understood that the issues were life threatening. It is also clear that the association did not have the financial resources needed to make critical repairs which put the community in danger.  

   

Reserve studies; planning for future repairs

Now that you understand all of the different problems that led to the Surfside collapse, you are in a better position to identify solutions that may be applicable to your condominium.  Just remember that prioritizing proactivity will help to keep your community safe and stable.

Completing regular reserve studies is an excellent way to help prepare your condo for the future.

A reserve fund study is a detailed plan or roadmap that helps condominiums understand how much money they will need to save in their reserve funds when a major replacement or repair is required. Some states legally require condos to conduct regular reserve studies.

Furthermore, there may be a requirement for the reserve study to be conducted by a reserve specialist, reserve professional, or other qualified professional such as an engineer or architect.

In addition to acting on reserve studies, boards should disclose information about the findings, a summary of the reserve fund’s financial condition, and a funding plan to owners during the annual meeting. This way, owners know what to expect, be it good or bad news, when it comes to future assessment increases.

Condos should not give owners the option to waive or opt out of funding reserve requirements if at all possible. That just makes it harder for condominiums to fund critical and preventive projects. 

Note that reserve studies are not intended to address existing building conditions or specify corrective repairs. Local building inspectors are needed for current structural issues.

   

Preventive maintenance

Preventive maintenance is another key strategy for protecting a condominium’s stability and structural integrity.

Preventive maintenance involves proactively caring for building components to slow premature deterioration through a cyclical process of recurring inspections and key preventive maintenance tasks.

In short, instead of waiting for something to break or perform at a reduced level, the component or system is inspected and perhaps given a tune-up of sorts while it is in good working condition.

Preventive maintenance isn’t just for elevators or gym equipment. It’s also for structural elements like columns, beams and facades. These are the things that hold a condominium together and must be inspected on a regular basis.

According to a Stanford report that addresses the long-term costs of buildings, the cumulative cost of operating and maintaining facilities significantly impacts the overall budget, not just the maintenance budget, as a building ages.

Costs increase even more when maintenance is deferred. That’s because the issue usually grows in scope if it is not addressed right away, and a bigger maintenance issue means a bigger price tag. In fact, Stanford estimated that it can be as much as 30 times the cost to repair systems versus keeping up with routine maintenance.

Conversely, when a preventive maintenance routine is upheld, condominiums help ensure components and systems reach their maximum lifespan and reduce costs associated with early replacements.

   

Maintenance plan

Preventive maintenance is part of a larger maintenance plan. A maintenance plan outlines each common area component that the condo association is responsible for maintaining, and provides a schedule to inspect each component at least one time every year.

   

Inspections

Inspections must be completed before any maintenance work can begin. By completing inspections outlined in your maintenance plan (or manual), you can identify small problems before they become big issues.

   

Corrective maintenance

If problems have been identified during an inspection or by residents, the association’s next step is to correct the problem. This is known as corrected maintenance.

   

 Preventive maintenance

This is the act of preserving the condominium, its systems and equipment by scheduling cleanings, tune-ups, etc.

The maintenance plan must be recorded in writing, but it can be digital (Excel or maintenance software program). It should address maintenance activities, including details of scheduled preventive maintenance tasks and activities, to ensure adequate maintenance.

Your building engineer can oversee the community’s maintenance plan, but it can also be shared between a maintenance manager and condo manager.

Maintenance plans are so vital that several states, including California, Oregon and Minnesota, have mandated them for condominiums.

These states have mandated maintenance plans because there is concern that without a plan, condo boards will avoid spending money on maintenance. Furthermore, legislators recognize that common areas and components are far more likely to get the attention they need if there is a plan that identifies what to inspect, when to inspect systems, and how to prevent maintenance problems from jeopardizing health and/or safety.

By creating and following a maintenance plan, condominiums maximize the lifespan of building components and common areas which may result in a reduction of reserve funding, thereby stalling large assessment increases.

   

How to create a maintenance plan

Like most things relating to condo governance and operations, you will want to consult your governing documents first before creating a maintenance plan.

Locate the condominium’s maintenance matrix (if it exists). The matrix will list the common areas, separate interest areas, and the exclusive use common areas of your community.

Next, review the reserve study and add the major components to your list.

Identify which building components are manufactured products that have their own operating manual. Find the maintenance recommendations from those manuals and note what warranties those components carry. Ensure the maintenance is done to honor warranty requirements.

Create a master list or spreadsheet from the completed list. Sometimes it helps to do a physical audit of the building to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

While creating an Excel list is perfectly acceptable, using condo software with a preventive maintenance feature is even better.  

Condo Control’s maintenance module, for example, makes it extremely easy to organize and update building elements. Add all of the condo’s systems, and then list the components belonging to each system. Systems and components can be edited as needed.

From there, you can schedule preventive maintenance activities, assign maintenance tasks to condo staff, and view a real-time list of activities and their statuses.     

Maintenance tasks can be as simple as checking the pool’s pH level, or as complex as inspecting the façade of the condo.

Add serial numbers, warranty details or relevant documents to components to create a detailed history.

Not only does a preventive maintenance module streamline and consolidate maintenance operations, but having all of this critical information in one place allows new board members or staff to quickly learn about the history and current status of building components. This helps ensure maintenance problems don’t go unnoticed.

Once the list has been completed, get details about specific components from landscape and building maintenance contractors, your reserve analyst, and anyone else who plays a role in inspecting and repairing the condo’s components. Ask them how often components should be inspected, identify which components may require preventive maintenance, and find out what that entails. Then schedule a date for the maintenance to be performed.  

Next, hire a general contractor or inspector who is licensed and insured with both general liability (without a homeowners association exclusion) and errors and omission insurance, since they will be acting as a consultant.

Task that contractor with completing the inspections. Have them provide the board with a sign-off sheet that details which inspections were performed, and includes the results of the inspection. The sign-off sheet should disclose whether any building component failures or deferred maintenance issues were found. There should also be instructions explaining what is required to make adequate corrections if problems are found.

The person responsible for scheduling maintenance will need to contact the right person or team to have the preventive or corrective maintenance performed.

After each inspection cycle, make the necessary changes to the schedule and required work.

   

Examples of maintenance best practices

Feel free to share these pieces of information with your team. They can help to keep your condominium in good condition for years to come. These tips come directly from the CAI.

  • In all situations where additional loads, such as planters, are added to a building or primary load-bearing structure, or if existing components are relocated, have a structural review performed to confirm structural adequacy
  • Consider the additional weight of EV stations and electric vehicles and how the weight could impact parking garages
  • If components exist adjacent to the building that contain water that, if compromised, may impact the structure of the condominium, implement a periodic inspection schedule
  • Perform periodic reviews of all life safety mechanical systems such as fire protection systems
  • Include within the reserve study the cost and timing of all required corrective maintenance identified as a part of the periodic structure and façade inspections
  • Provide owners with a summary report of the condition of the building and a plan to address pending corrective maintenance issues and funding within 120 days after each inspection. The summary report should highlight:
    • the priority items of concern
    • the timeline for corrective maintenance
    • funding requirements
    • the results and recommendations of the inspection report
  • Anticipating procedures for the disposition of a project when systems are economically obsolete (when the cost of repair or renovation exceeds the value of the project

   

Conclusion

It takes a lot of work to maintain a condominium. With so many parts to consider, it’s not hard to imagine why some maintenance tasks get overlooked or deferred. But, if the damage is not taken care of, eventually, the issue can become dangerous for the owners who live in the building.

Creating and following a detailed maintenance plan that prioritizes preventive maintenance is one of the best ways to avoid a critical system failure. 

Not only does having an actionable plan keep owners safe, but it can also help to reduce or delay big costs associated with major repairs or replacements. Furthermore, buildings that are in good condition have an easier time attracting owners to serve on the board, and keeping strong condo managers. The consequential savings result in stability and harmony, and that’s something every condo owner can appreciate.

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