Maintenance warning after Miami collapse

Why tragedy may hold lessons for WA.


The deadly collapse of Miami condominium, Champlain Towers South, is a tragic reminder for the need to stay on top of maintenance and other issues affecting apartment buildings, Strata Community Association (WA) President, Catherine Lezer, said.


As the number of dead pulled from the rubble of the 12-storey seaside building continued to climb, Ms Lezer said the WA strata community felt for its Miami counterparts.


The 40-year-old Champlain Towers South collapsed on June 24 at 1.23am as most of its occupants slept. The BBC reported Thursday that the bodies of two children were the latest to be found in its ruins, raising the known death toll to 18.


Nearly 150 people were still missing, the broadcaster reported.


“I was devastated when I heard the news,” Ms Lezer said. “My heart goes out to the people affected.”


Ms Lezer said the tragedy reinforced the need to listen to experts and keep buildings in good shape. In WA, she said it was important strata companies took seriously the new 10 year maintenance plans which became mandatory under the state’s Strata Titles Act from May last year.


“There are clever people out there like engineers who know what we need to do to maintain and keep safe our buildings — and we’re not doing it,” Ms Lezer said.


“I want to reinforce the importance of the 10-year plan and the new laws that have come in.


“The rule is all buildings of $5 million or more insurance value or with 10 lots or more must have a 10 year maintenance plan and it has to be renewed every five years.


“That’s your roadmap.”


Ms Lezer said Australia had had Opal Tower in Sydney, a new building which was evacuated on Christmas Eve in 2018 when cracks began to appear. In June 2019 another Sydney building, the 12-year old Mascot Towers, was also evacuated after the discovery of cracking.


But she said the need for higher building standards was separate to maintenance issues. She said even the best building could become dangerous if it was not looked after properly.


Glen Webster, director and general manager of award-winning WA building consultancy Home Integrity, said strata companies and owners should look to registered builders for their 10-year plans.


Home Integrity last month won SCA’s national Strata Services Business Award after winning the WA award in the same category last year.


“There are two parts to the 10-year plan and a lot of people don’t realise that” said Mr Webster, a structural engineer and registered builder. “There is the building condition report and the 10-year maintenance plan. They are distinctly different things.


“A lot of strata companies are interested in the financials and the graphs — understanding the money that they need to spend, and when, is important for obvious reasons.


“But when it comes to the condition report, you want to make sure the proper time and effort has been put into that, and it has been undertaken by a qualified builder. This information also assists in feeding into the 10-year plan component if it is done correctly.


“There are inspectors in the industry who are not registered builders and strata companies may even choose to do these inspections themselves. However, this is shortsighted and may leave the Council of Owners exposed in the future.


“The Miami collapse should be a wake-up call, to ensure appropriately qualified professionals undertake these inspections.”


Mr Webster said it was also important that companies followed up on expert recommendations. He said priority of repairs or replacement was an integral part of the plans and addressing highlighted issues would assist in maintaining a building to a suitable standard.


“There will be a detailed account and history that comes out of the Miami investigation,” he said. “In the interim, there will be significant speculation about this collapse, but it will take some time for the root cause to be formally acknowledged.


“Evidence of settlement going back to the 1990s and an inspection from 2018 highlighting major structural damage has already been reported. Questions will no doubt be raised about what the strata council did with this information and what, if any, repairs were undertaken. And finally, what impact this had on the final mode of failure will be assessed.


“This may lead to legal action on numerous parties, one possibly being the strata council, if they didn’t act on relevant information and their negligence in this matter was a factor in the final mode of failure.


“Strata companies in Australia would also potentially be at risk if 10-year maintenance plans highlight significant issues and the recommendations were not followed. Worst case scenario — something catastrophic happens here — then questions will be asked.”


Mr Webster said events where buildings collapse and pancake as in Miami were rare, particularly where no other external factors such as an earthquake were involved.


“It has already been reported that there were visible changes in the building and structural concerns raised, but we will not know if other external, or more recent factors contributed more heavily, until more detailed assessments are carried out,” he said.


Mr Webster said he was horrified, and the images of the collapse took his breath away.


“As an industry and community, we must find the answers to why this has happened, what is the root cause and the specific chain of events that lead to this catastrophe. And then implement processes to ensure this does not happen again,” he said.


“‘Safety in Design’ has come a long way since the Miami building was constructed, but whether older or newer, we still need to be vigilant of changes in our buildings and act accordingly, employing professionals as required to ensure safety.


“All we can do — and members can do — is reiterate the importance of condition reports and the 10-year plans being carried out by qualified professionals and if significant issues are highlighted, they should be actioned accordingly. These reports are a positive thing, not just another expense” he says.