SURFSIDE, Florida – As the full extent of the structural damage at Champlain Towers South slowly dawned on the condominium’s shell-shocked residents, new issues emerged that left board members to wonder if the once-glamorous high-rise had been flawed from the start.
As residents girded themselves for the imminent repair bill, condo board members told them the 40-year-old building had no waterproofing layers over the garage, exposing it to water intrusion from the time construction was completed in 1981.
The revelation, gleaned from an October 2020 slide show presentation, came from a cache of condo documents provided to USA TODAY by relatives of missing residents. It stands out because the concrete that protected the reinforcing steel rods in the ceiling of the garage was only half as thick as would have been required had it been outside and exposed to so much water, engineering experts told USA TODAY.
It’s unclear if those flaws contributed to the building’s June 24 collapse that has left 22 confirmed dead, with 126 people still missing through Friday night. Investigators said determining the cause of the disaster could take more than a year.
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The absence of waterproofing combined with accounts of frequent flooding in the garage below intrigued experts interviewed by USA TODAY reporters. The reinforcing steel known as rebar is supposed to be encased in concrete as thick as 1.5 inches when exposed to the elements, according to American Concrete Institute codes. Indoors, the concrete can be half as thick.
But in the absence of waterproofing, said Abi Aghayere, a professor of structural engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, the rebar in Champlain Towers South’s garage should have been built to the thicker width “given the corrosive environment.”
Yet even without the waterproofing, experts said it appears the building at of 8777 Collins Ave. met the codes of its time.
“In 1976, there wasn’t any requirement in the South Florida building code for concrete exposed to the atmosphere to have any protection or waterproofing,” said Syed Ashraf, a structural engineer specializing in retrofitting aging Miami high-rises.
That concrete would be much better protected from the elements today, he added.
Instead, the garage was subject to rain, sea spray and some saltwater intrusion.
“If that cover is compromised, then it sets up corrosion much quicker,” said Khushroo Daruwalla, a professional engineer and director of quality at the Fort Lauderdale-based construction firm Moss & Associates. “The salts make their way through the concrete and start eating away at that rebar.”
No one is saying corrosion caused the collapse, but it was one more weakness in a building failure many engineers say likely stemmed from multiple problems that built upon one another.
“If you had perfectly pristine, uncorroded reinforcement bars with their original strength and original strain capacity, that would have helped,” said Dawn Lehman, a professor of structural engineering at the University of Washington.
A board under the gun
The condo board documents provide a sobering glimpse of life inside Champlain Towers South as residents became aware of the extent of the building’s problems.
At an August 2018 meeting of the condo association board, members discussed how a preliminary inspection of half of the building’s units found that only two of the 68 inspected units did not have damage. A year later, an 11th floor resident complained about a small piece of concrete that fell from the unit above his. Others complained about leaking pipes in the garage and ongoing issues with roof leaks.
The inspection report residents received in October 2018 detailed the need for major repairs, news that threw the board into a state of turmoil. By the time residents got around to discussing how to pay for repairs at a meeting in May 2020, the board presentation concluded, “We should have started saving five years ago.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic upending everyone’s lives, the condo’s leadership was still working through specifics in October 2020 when a new slideshow presentation drove home the urgency of the problems.
“There is no waterproofing layer over the garage in the driveway,” one slide warned. “This has exposed the garage to water intrusion for 40 years. Where there is waterproofing, it has failed. Water has gotten underneath and caused additional damage to the concrete.”
By this year, residents had come to terms with what they had to do. Earlier this week USA TODAY obtained a letter sent in April from the president of the condo association telling owners the building now needed $16.2 million to make the necessary repairs. Its president, Jean Wodnicki, suggested to owners the association could repurpose $707,003 to bring the repairs down to a ticket price of $15.5 million.
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Proposed assessments, based on the size of the units, ranged from $80,190 to $150,330, with a $336,135 charge to the building’s 13th floor penthouse, documents show. For those who were financing the cost, the first scheduled payment would have come Thursday.
Residents who spoke with USA TODAY said they and their neighbors were not against repairing the building, though some raised questions about spending decisions and how contracting bids were tendered.
“It wasn’t like people were ignoring it,” said Jay Miller, a retired college professor from Philadelphia who moved to Champlain Towers South three years ago.
A board report during an early discussion of the assessments made clear that the residents believed the hefty repair costs were the worst they had to fear.
“This will be a challenging time for all of us at Champlain Tower South. Our building has been neglected for some time,” an assessment report read, before concluding, “The board is working very hard to find ways to meet the desperate needs of the building. It would be irresponsible to continue to ignore these needs.”
The calamitous state of the garage had long been a source of concern among owners.
Cassie Stratton, who lived on the fourth floor and remains missing, would complain to her sister that she didn’t want to park her new Porsche in the Champlain Towers South garage because it was often wet and dirty.
But Stratton never would have predicted the building’s imminent demise, her sister, Ashley Dean, told USA TODAY.
“They had no idea of just what exactly was brewing underneath there.”
Contributing: Trevor Hughes, Rick Jervis and Marco della Cava