Ask the Architect

What happened in Florida?


Q. What is your take on why the building collapsed in Surfside, Fla.? I saw that there was an engineer’s report and wondered, don’t the engineers have a responsibility to fix the building when they see something wrong like this? When you build a building, don’t you have to follow the plans, and doesn’t anybody see the problems and do something to prevent this kind of nightmare?

A. The real answer is simple, but the reasons for this building-collapse scenario are really complicated, mainly because well-meaning people start out with the best of intentions but generally don’t follow good advice from people who have been educated, tested, licensed and regulated.

Engineers are the backbone of our nation. If not for them, the tooling and design that launched ships, planes, tanks and portable bridges would not have been successful, and we probably wouldn’t be reading or writing in this language right now. In a war, soldiers are trained to take orders, get that portable bridge assembled in six hours and drive those tanks to the front lines. There is a clear chain of command. In the real world, people request that building plans be made and building assessments be produced, and then people with little or no background meet on boards and councils and decide if something should be done.

You will find that as each bridge and building collapse takes place, there’s the drama of search and rescue, but the public learns little about the technical reasons for failure, and so it goes. Did you ever hear the real, physical reason for the collapse of the World Trade Center towers — especially Tower 7, which collapsed later? Inevitably, buildings collapse for a general reason: structural failure. There are many, many technical reasons for structural failure, from simple water intrusion and deterioration to more complicated reasons such as harmonics due to vibration and wind pulse. Fire caused the WTC towers to collapse due to heat fatigue, although there are many other physical components that caused the chain reaction.

The Surfside disaster reminds me of the Kansas City skywalk collapse, where poor decisions, no decisions and not listening to intelligent, qualified advice could have prevented death. What I understand, so far, is that the tools for action were there: poor design decisions or carrying out the work to slope decks around the pool area, exposed steel reinforcing was not repaired — it will be a long list. Again, putting people in positions of authority who have no background of training, testing and professional experience is the beginning of the cumulative problem.

As our nation’s infrastructure of bridges, tunnels, roadways and water-treatment facilities continue to age, they show the signs of preventable failure. You have to ask yourself if anyone really is listening to the engineers. We professionals don’t physically build buildings; we plan them, asking ourselves along the way how they could fail so we can try to prevent failure. If poor workmanship or inadequate action follows, we see the consequences.

© 2021 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.