4 July 2021
The collapse of the front wing of a 12 storey Florida beach residential tower block on 24 June has sent shivers around the world. The rest of the building, more than three quarters of it, is now to be demolished before a tropical storm comes in (ABC News today). Another similar condominium 8km away has been evacuated (SMH- Unsafe Florida Condo evacuated 4/7/21).
It has always been assumed that tall buildings do not fall down in first world countries unless earthquakes are very bad. We need to look again.
I did a locum in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs in the early 1980s and found that a number of quite famous and prestigious buildings were being treated for concrete cancer, which is what happens when the steel reinforcing rods rust, expand and the overlying concrete flakes and falls off. Presumably the treatment of the Eastern Suburbs buildings was successful as they are still there. When I was at Sydney Water head office, it had a 7 storey old part from 1927 (which is still there repurposed as a hotel) and a ‘new’ building, which was 26 floors in concrete. Though not at all pretty, (the word brutalist comes to mind), the new building had won an architectural award. A fortune was then spent removing the asbestos. Some years later a nice big front overhang was built over the footpath outside. I discovered that this was because the concrete cancer was so bad that bits of it were falling off and might be dangerous to the citizens on the footpath outside. None of that was mentioned at the time of course; that building was demolished some years later.
When I visited Cuba in 2007 the buildings along the foreshore in Havana were all 1930s reinforced concrete two or three storeys high with concrete balconies with concrete balustrades and handrails and the sort of scrolls holding up the verandahs and around the doors. Art deco if I am not mistaken. But they had concrete cancer bigtime and the balconies were literally falling off. As you walked down the footpath, some areas were roped off in case there were more falls. Some houses were condemned, which seemed just to mean that they were full of squatters rather than owners.
It is not clear whether the building falling in Florida was poorly constructed, whether it got concrete cancer, or whether the sand shifted under it. Presumably we will know eventually.
Back here in Australia the wave of deregulation in the early 1990s led to the privatisation of building certifiers, and the distorting effect of real estate money, surely the biggest problem in Australian governance, has hugely affected building standards. We have seen the fiasco of the Opal Towers building at Olympic Park in December 2018 (SMH 24/12/18), and Mascot Towers (SMH 15/5/19). We now have a new building inspectorate and the new NSW Building Commissioner seems aware of the problems. But Body Corporates do not want to report their defects. No doubt they are fully aware that if they do their property values may be totally destroyed, or at best they will be up for a fortune in repair costs if the problem is fixable. So the answer is to hide the defect if you think the place will not fall down.
The Building Commissioner says that there are 200 apartments on the lower North Shore with ‘scandalous’ defects.
When I was in Parliament it was drawn to my attenti0on that air-conditioning ducts often went through supposedly fire-proof walls, as did plumbing that was not sealed off around the pipes. One of Sydney’s major apartment builders and generous political donor was named, and I asked a question as to how many building were there in the Sydney CBD that the Fire Dept. had declined to certify as safe for occupation? I never got a quantitative response, but the company in question sued the Sydney City Council for being slow in issuing certificate of occupancy. I guess that they thought attack was the best form of defence.
A little known fact is that insurers will not insure buildings over 3 storeys.
The system of private certifiers is a farce and the chickens are likely to come home to roost. How do you buy an apartment now?
Inspectors have to have the power to refuse and guaranteed employment, so that they cannot be bullied or blackmailed. Then there have to be protections against corruption. A head of a planning dept. that I knew banned meetings in a certain coffee shop that was known as a place where developers spoke to public servants, banned meetings on a one to one basis and insisted that there be minutes of every meeting and that only what was written down was to be considered as binding. He had lessons on ethics and acceptable behaviour, but admitted, ‘I cannot check on everything’.