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  • Writer's pictureTim Spears

Navigating the Dangers of Unpermitted Construction: Lessons from Orange Beach and the Crucial Role of Structural Inspections




In an era where urban landscapes are constantly evolving, the tale of a multi-story condominium in Orange Beach serves as a reminder of the critical importance of adhering to building regulations. Unpermitted construction led to the forced evacuation of nearly 50 units in the condominium, highlighting a reality: the shortcuts in building safety can have dire consequences.


The Hazards of Compromised Structural Integrity in High-Rise Buildings


The scenario unfolded in Orange Beach, Alabama, where city crews and the fire marshal determined that the east tower of the Wind Drift condos on Perdido Beach Blvd. was unsafe due to unpermitted construction work. The evacuation was a precautionary measure taken to avoid potential disasters that could arise from compromised structural integrity. This incident underscores the invisible risks that lurk within our urban environments, especially in high-rise buildings where the stakes are exponentially higher.




Bridging the Gap Between Engineering and Building Safety


The significance of structural engineering in ensuring building safety cannot be overstated. In an ICC Region I Radio podcast with Dr. Abi Aghayere, a professor of civil engineering, the intricacies of structural failure analysis were reviewed. Dr. Aghayere's journey from the University of Lagos and MIT to Drexel University has been marked by a commitment to understanding and preventing structural failures. His insights into the tragic Surfside Condo Collapse and the importance of quality control in engineering drawings shine a light on the critical role that engineers play in safeguarding our communities.




The Role of Regular Inspections and Community Risk Reduction


One of the critical takeaways from the discussion with Dr. Aghayere is the importance of regular inspections in high-rise buildings. The lack of inspections and oversight can lead to catastrophic failures, as evidenced by the Surfside Condo Collapse. This tragedy highlights the need for a proactive approach to building safety, emphasizing the necessity of regular inspections to identify and rectify potential hazards before they escalate.


Who Should Conduct Inspections?


Dr. Aghayere strongly advocates for inspections to be carried out by professionals with the requisite expertise. Specifically, he shares that registered design professionals, such as structural engineers or licensed professionals, should perform these critical evaluations. Their specialized training and experience equip them to discern between benign and potentially hazardous structural anomalies. This precision is vital for ensuring that inspections not only identify real dangers but also avoid unnecessary alarm over inconsequential issues.


How Often Should Inspections Occur?


The frequency of inspections, according to Dr. Aghayere, should not be left to chance or convenience. For buildings in coastal regions or those subjected to harsh environmental conditions, a shorter inspection cycle is recommended. Drawing from his analysis and the unfortunate precedent set by the Surfside Condo Collapse, Dr. Aghayere suggests that a 10 to 15-year interval for major inspections can serve as a critical checkpoint for structural integrity. These milestones are essential for preemptive identification of potential failures, allowing for timely interventions that can significantly mitigate risks.


Warning Signs of Structural Failure


The dialogue with Dr. Aghayere also illuminates the warning signs of impending structural failures. Key indicators include but are not limited to:


  • Visible Cracks in Structural Components: Not all cracks signal danger, but their presence warrants professional evaluation to determine their severity.

  • Corrosion of Building Materials: Especially in steel and rebar, corrosion can significantly weaken structural components, leading to potential failures.

  • Water Infiltration: Persistent water leakage or signs of moisture within structural elements can be a precursor to more serious integrity issues.

  • Unusual Sounds or Movements: Sounds of cracking or noticeable shifts in building elements can indicate stress or failure points within the structure.

Engaging the Community in Structural Safety


The insights from Dr. Aghayere serve as a clear call to the community of building and fire safety professionals. In light of these revelations, we must ask ourselves: How can we contribute to the ongoing dialogue and action towards safer buildings? Are there recent experiences or learnings you’ve encountered that echo the importance of regular inspections and professional oversight in building safety?


Conclusion


The forced evacuation of the condominium in Orange Beach is a reminder to building and fire safety professionals of the ongoing challenges and innovations shaping the industry. Through shared insights and experiences, like those of Dr. Aghayere, we can foster a community of informed professionals dedicated to making a difference. Regular inspections, adherence to building codes, and a keen understanding of structural engineering are our best tools in the quest for safer urban spaces.


References


Harmon, K. (2024). Unpermitted construction triggers evacuation of Orange Beach condo units. Retrieved from https://weartv.com/news/local/unpermitted-construction-triggers-evacuation-of-orange-beach-condo-units


ICC Region 1. (2023, August 21). Understanding structural failure: Analysis, types, causes, and prevention [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/BTgiF96tsIs

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