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Owners Who Kick The Maintenance Can Down The Road May Kick Themselves Later

Robert Lau, a structural engineer at Klein and Hoffman, inspects a building for damage.

The June collapse of a 12-story Surfside, Florida, condo building was a stark warning for building owners across the country to stop deferring structural maintenance on their properties. While the cause of the collapse is still being determined, early reports pointed toward ongoing structural deterioration. Whether deterred by cost or other considerations, owners eventually learn they cannot afford to ignore problems like water intrusion.

Principals with Klein & Hoffman, a Chicago-based architectural and structural engineering firm, said the tragedy was about as strong an argument as could be made to take the issue seriously.

“It was definitely a wake-up call for building owners, property managers and even consultants,” said Terry McDonald, a licensed structural engineer and associate principal with the firm. 

McDonald noted that, thankfully, events like the Champlain Towers South collapse are extremely rare. However, that fact should not lull people into complacency.

“For well-managed properties, regular maintenance practices are part of their annual budget," he said. "Also, building codes are constantly improving, and engineers and architects are evolving constantly to make improvements to the durability of their designs. That tragedy was so rare, but it is a reminder that you can only kick the can down the road for so long.”

The collapse sent a chill throughout the real estate industry, and in the following weeks Klein & Hoffman fielded many calls from anxious building owners. Those conversations generally took two forms. The first, McDonald said, were from building owners wanting someone to verify the structural integrity of their building for their peace of mind. A few of those who inquired thought this could be done remotely. 

“Of course, we can't do that,” McDonald said. “We need to do a walk-through survey and evaluate the building and make sure everything in general is OK in a high-level review.”

Rather than procrastinating and then calling an expert in a panic, he said, a much better approach is for owners and managers to routinely survey their properties for signs of potential problems — and to make sure they follow up on any warning signs. The Surfside disaster seemed to remind many owners of maintenance issues they had been putting off. 

“The second type of call we got was, ‘You know that report we did a few years ago and we learned we needed to do those repairs? We want to do them now,’” McDonald said.

In a case like that, the owner at least has a sense of their building’s structural health. But they are still behind the eight ball because whatever problems they have, it might have been simpler and cheaper to correct them early, he said, adding that these issues can often worsen rapidly once they reach a certain point.

“It starts off with just listening to tenants and maintenance staff, and being aware of your situation,” McDonald said. “If you hear that there's been leaks going on for years and years, that's obviously a sign. Anytime there's water somewhere it shouldn't be for a long enough period of time that it can cause issues.”

McDonald said symptoms to look out for include leaks, surface cracks, loose concrete and rusted reinforcing steel. The problem might turn out to be minor, but noticing and addressing it quickly can help avoid the need for panicked phone calls and expensive repairs in the future.

“Owners and managers would know their building best, and it's hard to diagnose something over the phone without looking at it in person,” said Peter Power, principal and president of Klein & Hoffman. “If they see deterioration, rot or corrosion, that should be a sign to look into it further and contact somebody who would be able to diagnose it.”

Nevertheless, some owners let structural problems fester because they are worried about the potential cost of repairs. That concern can be eased by setting priorities.

“A good engineering firm will help you structure a repair program so that you are addressing your most critical elements sooner and responsibly deferring some of those less important repair items for maintenance at a later date when necessary,” Senior Associate Zelina Johnson said. “Just because you're looking at a really big price tag for a repair program doesn't mean that you can't chip away at it year after year and address the hazardous issues immediately.”

A good best practice for a building owner, McDonald added, is to make sure to follow through with those repair plans.

“There's a heightened awareness now about these issues, which is actually a good thing,” he said. “The tragedy, obviously, is extremely sad, but it's a very rare event. And it directs a spotlight back on some of the things that should be taken more seriously.”

This article was produced in collaboration between Studio B and Klein & Hoffman. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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