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Structural Safety Seminar 11-16-21

Our Town with William Kelly: Town Council to consider tougher inspection program for buildings after Surfside disaster

Zoning official outlines proposal at seminar co-hosted by Palm Beach Civic Association and Citizens’ Association of Palm Beach

The town may tighten inspection requirements to make sure high-rise buildings are safe in the wake of the Surfside condominium collapse.

Zoning Director Wayne Bergman has drafted a building recertification proposal expected to come before the Town Council in January.

Bergman outlined the draft on Tuesday at a building structure safety seminar co-sponsored by the Palm Beach Civic Association and Citizens’ Association of Palm Beach. About 50 people, mostly residential building managers or board members, attended the event at the South Fire Station.

On June 24, the Champlain Towers South, a 12-story residential building in Miami’s Surfside neighborhood, partially collapsed, killing 98 people and injuring others.

Bergman was part of a 40-member Palm Beach County task force formed to examine building safety measures after the Surfside disaster. But the county in October decided to hold off on creating its program to regularly inspect high-rise buildings, deferring instead to state lawmakers who will meet in January.

Miami-Dade and Broward counties require examinations of buildings when they turn 40 years old. After that, it’s every 10 years. But Palm Beach County doesn’t.

The City of Boca Raton is the only municipality in Palm Beach County that has adopted an inspection program in response to the Surfside disaster, Bergman said. Boca Raton is requiring high-rise buildings to be inspected at 30 years of age.

Bergman, who is also the town’s building official, is proposing that Palm Beach implement a building safety inspection and recertification program for all “threshold” buildings after they have turned 25 years old. Threshold buildings would be defined as those greater than three stories or 50 feet in height.

Bergman is recommending the 25-year threshold for Palm Beach because of the proximity to the ocean environment. Saltwater intrusion degrades rebar, which is the steel bar or mesh used to reinforce concrete or masonry.

If the council approves the plan, staffing would be needed to administer the program, he said. The town would need to hire a structural engineer to assist with town reviews of the building safety reports. Ordinances would have to be amended to implement the program, establish fines for violations, set a fee for viewing inspection reports, and create an inspection checklist.

Under Bergman’s proposal, owners of “threshold” buildings would be notified by the town that they have 90 days to have an inspection done by a licensed engineer or architect. Any structural deficiencies identified by the inspector would have to be reported and repaired within 180 days.

“My guess is, if the town does not do this, the insurance company will get involved and tell you to do this,” Bergman said.

Currently, the only inspections required by the town are annual fire and life-safety inspections conducted by the Fire-Rescue Department; permit-driven inspections for new construction, including concrete restoration; complaint-driven inspections for alleged property maintenance issues; and annual facilities permits.

But Bergman said more needs to be done to protect the structural integrity of high-rise buildings as they age – especially in areas like Palm Beach, where saltwater corrosion is a big concern.

Concrete spalling, which occurs when exposed steel rusts and expands, is a “huge issue,” he said. This problem often occurs when owners install carpeting or tile on balconies, trapping water against concrete.

A more aggressive approach to inspections provides an added layer of protection for residents and buildings and may also help with property values, real estate sales and insurance premiums, he said.

Ben Messerschmidt, an engineer with Epic Forensics and Engineering, said there needs to be a drastic change in how inspections are done.

Legal guidelines currently focus on structural problems without requiring the underlying causes to be corrected, he said.

“We need a more comprehensive approach – not just structural and electrical,” said Messerschmidt, who performs inspections and regularly submits reports to insurance carriers.

The Surfside disaster has created a ripple effect, he said. “The danger has really always been there, but now it’s under a microscope. The days of cheap living in a condo are well behind us.”

Louis Caplan, an attorney with the Boca Raton law firm Sachs Sax Caplan, predicted that laws will be amended to require greater disclosure to condominium buyers about building reserve funds for property repairs.

Too often, he said, those reserve accounts are underfunded by condo boards whose members are elected to keep fees low, he said.

Caplan said he hopes the legacy of the Surfside tragedy is that condo residents will elect board members whose priority is to keep them safe.

“The legacy [should be] that buildings are structurally sound, safer and that people who are living in paradise are also living in a place where they can sleep at night,” he said.