The developers of the Florida condo tower that collapsed might have worked around local building codes to add a penthouse that wasn’t part of the original plan.
It reinforced claims that the partners behind Champlain Towers South in Surfside received preferential treatment to get through the permit system when the site was being developed in 1981.
A Miami Herald article that year said that the property owners built the penthouse after the Surfside town commission granted a special exemption to local height limits. That allowed for the rooftop apartments at Champlain Towers South and a little later at Champlain Towers North, which was built around the same time.
According to the article, Mitchell Kinzer was mayor of Surfside at the time and he voted to allow the height exception. Kinzer said in an interview on Sunday, June 27, that he couldn’t recall the specifics of the matter.
The 13-story tower was at the initial stage of renovations worth around $15 million to pass a required 40-year certification when it collapsed around 1:30 a.m. Thursday, June 24, killing at least 11 people and leaving more than 150 unaccounted for.
It’s not yet clear if the addition of a penthouse put undue stress on the south tower, but local authorities and engineers are looking at all possible irregularities related to the building after its sudden collapse.
The tower’s rooftop apartments would have added significant weight but they were accounted for in the revised design, said Roberto Leon, a professor of construction engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Leon, who reviewed the building plans, said that the size of the columns and reinforcements would have been typical for that time, and the roof would have had limited ability to redistribute the building’s load if one of the columns were to fail. Meaning, a failure in one column could bring down an entire structure.
Florida and other states strengthened construction standards to prevent this type of issue after the 1981 collapse of condos under construction in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
The Champlain Towers were built by a group of developers that included the late Nathan Reiber, a Polish-born Canadian who was once charged with tax evasion and cited for legal misconduct in Canada.
Reiber and his partners were initially unable to begin construction of the condo buildings in Florida due to a 1979 moratorium over faulty sewers. They agreed to pay half of the $400,000 tab for the sewer repairs on the property and were given the green light, infuriating their rival developers whose projects remained stalled by the moratorium.
Structural engineering firm Brieterman Jurado & Associates and architectural firm William M. Friedman & Associates were also involved in the construction of the site.
Manuel Jurado told the Washington Post that his side of the firm handled electrical and mechanical work, while Brieterman handled structural work. Sertio Brieterman, the principal with that wing of the company, died in the 1990s.
Jurado said he was skeptical of criticisms over the design and engineering work. (Related: Architects and engineers challenge official story of World Trade Center Building 7 collapse.)
“If there was a major error, it would have surfaced within a year or two,” he said, adding that “there were no problems that presented themselves” in the design process, and that the project unfolded smoothly.
A former vice president at William M. Friedman & Associates said the design of the Champlain towers was handled by William Friedman, who died in 2018.
“It was his project, not mine,” said Manuel Tapia-Ruano, the former vice president at the architectural firm. “When I joined the company, the building was already constructed. I don’t know anything about it.”
In 2018, Champlain Towers South was cited for “major structural damage” by a consulting firm hired by the building’s association to conduct repairs. Frank Morabito, an engineer, said that the “main issue” was the poor drainage of a pool deck that sat atop a parking garage at the site.
“Failure to replace waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” Morabito wrote as part of his October 2018 assessment report. He gave no indication that the structure was at risk of collapse, but he noted that the needed repairs would be aimed at “maintaining the structural integrity” of the building and its 136 units.
Morabito’s firm, Morabito Consulting, issued a statement on Saturday, June 26, saying that it provided the condo association with both an assessment of the “extensive and necessary repairs” needed and an estimate of how much they would cost.
“Among other things, our report detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents and the public,” the statement said.
Emails show that the secretary of the condo association forwarded the report to an official in the town’s building department on Nov. 13, 2018. The town did not disclose any further correspondence related to the report.
Mayor Charles W. Burkett of Surfside said on Saturday that he did not know if any steps were taken to examine the problems further. “Of course there should have been a follow up. And I don’t know that there wasn’t. I think we need to understand exactly what happened at that time,” he said.
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