Engineering firm executive Sinisa Kolar’s phone has been ringing off the hook since the deadly collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida.
“Let’s put it this way, since this started, I’m actually not doing anything — I’m just answering phones and talking to people,” Kolar said of the influx of concerned calls that his Miami-based company, the Falcon Group, has received since the 12-story beachfront condominium came crumbling to the ground in the early-morning hours of June 24.
Kolar is not alone. Structural engineering firms, condominium management companies, and various contractors have fielded questions from concerned residents and board members of high-rise buildings across the Sunshine State since the tragedy. The exact cause of the collapse, which has resulted in 18 confirmed deaths and 145 missing people, still hasn’t been pinned down, but the building’s downfall has heightened anxieties about similar buildings along the coasts of South Florida.
The Champlain Towers were built in 1981 and subject to 40-year inspections, in which licensed engineers or architects go through the building and carefully examine it for any problems that might have occurred because of its age. Buildings are then recertified if everything checks out. The 40-year inspections are mandatory for buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and the building that collapsed was set to have one this year.
Kolar told the Washington Examiner that high-rise condominiums in the area are scrambling to get reassurance that their property is safe.
“We’re getting calls from buildings regardless of their age, of their height, or their location,” he said during an interview, noting that the condominiums are inquiring about inspections or anything that can give residents peace of mind.
The building codes in South Florida were redone after Hurricane Andrew, one of the most damaging storms in U.S. history, wrought havoc when it came onshore south of Miami in 1992. Any building since then has been constructed with the updated codes, although there are still hundreds of buildings in the area like Champlain Towers that were built pre-Andrew.
Kolar said the collapse has presented a “new challenge,” which is trying to figure out how to prove to residents of a younger building, like one that is only 10 years old, that their complex is structurally safe. Kolar said that 40-year inspections are largely visual, inspecting whether there are any obvious indicators that the building is not secure. He anticipates that the nature of inspections will likely change after this collapse.
Some 100 miles away on the other coast of Florida, condominium managers are also fielding a bevy of inquiries from owners and boards.
Jim Ketis, co-owner of Al Porter Commercial Painting and Concrete Restoration, said he has heard that a lot of board members are calling their property managers to confirm that everything is up to date in their buildings. He also said that he’s heard that some condominiums have already contacted engineers at the direction of their boards to line up structural inspections.
Ketis, whose company operates in Naples and Marco Island, told the Washington Examiner that he has also fielded a few calls from people expressing concern. He said that some of the questions being asked by condominium stakeholders are whether they should get their building inspected for structural issues.
W.J. Johnson & Associates, a consulting, engineering, and landscape architecture firm based out of Bonita Springs, sent out a letter to condominiums after receiving several calls from owners and managers. The company encouraged the letter to be shared.
“As you know, this is an extremely rare event, so our advice to your residents is not to panic,” the letter reads. “Unless you have reason to suspect a problem, our recommendation is to wait for the forensic report and if any of the causes are applicable to your building then you can address them intelligently. Given the severity of the situation, we think the forensic study will be fast tracked within a few months.”
Unlike Miami-Dade and Broward counties, those on the west coast, such as Collier and Lee counties, don’t require 40-year inspections, and a lot of the structures are not even that old. In the letter, the firm predicated similar certifications might soon be required in Collier and Lee in light of recent events.
Ketis also said he thinks it will only be a matter of time until mandatory 40-year inspection policies are adopted. He said the collapse could speed the process up.
“I believe this raises a lot of concerns, a lot of eyebrows,” he remarked.
Kolar assumes that laws regarding inspections will likely change as a result of the Champlain Towers collapse, but he isn’t sure to what extent. He said he thinks that statutory changes are going to rely heavily on the findings about what actually happened to the building the night of the collapse.
While there has been concern among owners in Florida, with some buildings holding informational meetings and events featuring engineers as guest speakers, there has also been a bit of attention among potential condominium owners.
Real estate broker Ned Berndt of Vandenburg Properties said that over the past week, he has been out with four or five sets of clients, and they’ve all asked about the structural integrity of the buildings they were touring.
Berndt told the Washington Examiner that if emails were to stop coming to his real estate website, it would be the “canary in the coal mine” that the collapse was having some effect on demand, but so far, he said, that has not occurred.
He highlighted that after real estate transactions occur, they take a few weeks to close. Berndt said he hasn’t yet seen any change in the number of closings and the number of acquisitions but noted that down the road in four to six weeks, there could be some differentials.
All in all, despite the concerns of some about the potential for a collapse, most people working in industries related to Florida condominiums are hoping to quell any panic that others might be experiencing.
“From what I’ve seen of buildings that I’ve worked on, no, I don’t feel that. They are pretty well maintained,” Ketis said of the possibility of a Surfside-like tragedy happening across the coast where he works.