Post Surfside, FL Senate may mandate inspections for multistory buildings

Bill would set ‘bare minimum,’ but counties could go further

By: - January 25, 2022 6:41 pm

Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in the Miami suburb of Surfside, partially collapsed on June 24, 2021. A controlled demolition took down the rest of the structure on July 4, 2021. Credit: Wikipedia.

Ninety-eight people died when the 12-story Champlain Towers South collapsed in Surfside, apparently from long-overlooked construction defects, among other factors. Legislation wending through the Legislature is intended to prevent it happening again.

The measure (SB 1702) would mandate periodic “milestone” inspections of multistory residential buildings, similar to those already required in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and some cities. It advanced Tuesday on a 9-0 vote by the Senate Committee on Community Affairs.

“We have half a million condo units in our state that are between 40 and 50 years old, more than 100 that are 50 years old or greater, and there is no requirement that they be inspected. There’s no requirement that the unit owners are aware of the condition of their building,” said bill sponsor Jennifer Bradley, a Republican representing counties in Northeast Florida.  Bradley is chair of the Senate’s community affairs committee.

“While we all wish we could turn back time, what we can do is take meaningful action today to, hopefully, prevent this tragedy in other communities,” Bradley said.

The same committee OK’d SB 1610, which gives a property tax break to owners of structures like Champlain South “following a destruction caused by a sudden collapse.” The tax break would reflect the loss in value of individual units, sponsor Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Republican representing Monroe and part of Miami-Dade County.

Separate legislation (SB 736) would make it harder for condo owners to sue over latent, or hidden, structural defects, by requiring arbitration of claims and lowering the deadline for filing suit to as little as four years, depending on the building type. It also has been moving through the committee process.

Bradley’s bill defines “milestone” inspections as reviews by “a licensed architect or engineer authorized to practice in this state for the purposes of attesting to the life safety and adequacy of the structural components of the building and, to the extent reasonably possible, determining the general structural condition of the building as it affects the safety of such building.”

The language declares that the object goes beyond mere compliance with the Florida Building Code, to whether a structure is a danger to life.

The committee heard from Allen Douglas, executive director of the Florida Engineering Society and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida, which helped devise the standards.

“We just wanted to come up with something that we thought was the bare minimum of what should be done,” Douglas said.

The timing of the inspections “might be a little long, to be honest with you,” he said.

“People should be looking at their buildings more often than that, but we felt our responsibility was to, if there’s a building that’s been sitting there for 20 years or 30 years, depending on where it’s at, and it hasn’t been properly maintained, we all have a vested interest in somebody that knows what they’re looking at going into that building.”

The bill would require inspections of multifamily residential buildings 30 years after the date of their certificates of occupancy and every 10 years after that. If a building is within three miles of a coastline, the initial inspection would have to happen after 20 years and every seven years thereafter.

That’s because sea air can cause corrosion to steel-reinforced structures. A Miami-Dade County grand jury report found that one among numerous contributing factors in the Surfside disaster, including known structural damage in its lower floors that was overdue for repairs, concussion from construction work nearby, and possible flaws in design and/or construction.

Owners of condo boards would be responsible for getting inspections done and for all costs. The requirement would not apply to two-family structures or those of fewer than 3,500 square feet.

Buildings cleared for occupancy on or before July 1, 1992, would have to be inspected by Dec. 31, 2024.

The licensed architects or engineers performing inspections would look for physical signs of structural compromise including “cracks, distortion, sagging, excessive deflections, significant misalignments, signs of leakage, or peeling of finishes.”

If none are apparent, the inspection ends there. If any are evident, there’ll be a Phase 2 inspection, which could entail “destructive or nondestructive” testing of the building’s inner structure “to confirm that the building is safe for its intended use.”

Inspectors would file reports and recommendations for repair with building owners or condo boards, local governments, and owners of any individual condominiums and on a condo association website if it has one, and they’d be available to prospective unit buyers.

The Florida Building Commission would have until the end of this year to devise “comprehensive structural and life safety standards for maintaining and inspecting all building types and structures in this state,” according to the bill text.

“We’re going to let the Florida Building Commission come up with their own standards that can be adopted at their discretion by local governments. But there needs to be a minimum standard through the state so that this doesn’t happen again,” Bradley said.

Under existing law, Florida does not require recertification or regular inspections of buildings, although Miami-Dade County since the 1990s has inspected buildings 40 years after construction, and Broward County since 2006, according to a bill analysis. Boca Raton recently began requiring inspections for buildings after 30 years.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.