Florida engineers form study group to recommend reforms after Surfside condo collapse

·5 min read

Members of four major engineering associations in Florida have convened to come up with potential post-Surfside recommendations for the Legislature, including whether the state should require mandatory reinspections of tall buildings.

Engineers are also considering who would be allowed to carry out those reinspections, and how they could be done without being prohibitively expensive for condominium associations.

And they will continue to support a bill that failed in the Legislature this year that would create a special license for structural engineers, something advocates have said could prevent building collapses.

The sudden collapse of the 13-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside has horrified Americans and rattled structural engineers, who are responsible for ensuring that tall buildings are safe from heavy loads and high winds.

While the cause of the collapse is unknown, state engineers are assembling data and holding weekly calls about potential recommendations they could make before lawmakers convene in Tallahassee this fall.

“What we have right now is more questions than any answers,” said Allen Douglas, executive director of the Florida Engineering Society and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida. “We want to do something, so let’s take a look at the things that can be discussed at this point.”

Members from those two trade groups, plus the Florida Structural Engineers Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers, held their first meeting this week.

Lawyers are looking at reforms, too

They’re not the first trade group to assemble a task force to come up with policies following the Surfside disaster. Experts from the Florida Bar are examining how condominium boards operate, including how they manage reserves for maintenance and repair costs and how often condominium buildings need to undergo inspections.

Before its collapse, the Champlain Towers South board was given an initial estimate of $9 million in repairs. Squabbling about what to do next led to board resignations, inactivity and confusion that delayed repairs.

So far, engineers are considering whether to recommend the state require recertifications for all tall buildings after a certain period of time. Currently, only Miami-Dade and Broward counties require buildings be inspected for recertification after 40 years, but other cities and counties are considering requiring similar reviews.

Tall buildings on the coast could require shorter timelines than ones not close to the water, Douglas said.

“Some of the people on [this week’s] call, they see more deterioration in the buildings that sit on the water, that get the saltwater spray,” Douglas said.

Separately, some engineers have suggested requiring the use of sophisticated sensing techniques and tests, such as sonar, radar and hand-held X-rays, to help assess conditions inside a concrete beam or beneath a foundation.

The other issue they’re looking to address is how condominium owners would be able to afford the inspections — and the cost of repairs. Inspections alone can cost from $5,000 to $200,000, depending on the inspection’s scope and the building’s size, and can result in recommendations of millions of dollars in repairs.

“It gets down to, how do you pay for this?” Douglas said. “If you go to a statewide model, it’s expensive on the condo associations. We don’t want people to not pay their assessments and lose their homes.”

How much rigor goes into inspections?

There are other, practical, concerns, such as who should be allowed to perform the inspections and how rigorous they should be. For example, some firms sample 20% of balconies during an inspection, while others insist on examining every single one.

Douglas said engineers will likely start teaming up with similar interest groups, such as architects and contractors, to build consensus around potential recommendations.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has not committed to any statewide review of aging buildings. On Wednesday, he suggested that Champlain Towers South “had problems from the start.”

Engineers also expect renewed debate this year about a special license for structural engineers, which would require them to pass a more rigorous test. While buildings are usually designed by architects, the role of the structural engineer is to make sure the building’s design is structurally sound.

Currently in Florida, any professional engineer can sign off on a building’s plans. Most states do not have special structural engineering licenses.

In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill creating such a license, but then-Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it over concerns about how it would apply to engineers who are currently licensed. This year, it did not get a hearing in the House, having run up against a prevailing sentiment that the state should not be creating new occupational licenses, according to Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, who sponsored the bill and is the only professional engineer in the Legislature.

DeSantis and lawmakers have removed some occupational licenses in recent years, which they see as a barrier to entry for many jobs.

“I always want to minimize things getting regulated, but this is an important one,” said Tom Grogan, a retired structural engineer and past president of the Florida Structural Engineers Association who advocated for the bill in 2015. Grogan is also participating in the engineers’ recent weekly calls.

Grogan said building collapses in Cocoa Beach in 1981 and in Jacksonville in 2007, both during construction, were primarily due to structural design flaws. The national structural engineering exam that he wants adopted in Florida would test the concepts that triggered those collapses, Grogan said.

Since Surfside, Toledo said she’s already had conversations with DeSantis’ staff and the House Speaker’s staff about bringing the bill up again when lawmakers start meeting in the fall.

“Surfside definitely made it a bigger concern,” Toledo said.

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