Potential Causes of Structural Failure
Although collapses are rare in the U.S., they can happen for various reasons; and, they happen more often than you may realize. The most common causes include low-quality steel, construction or design failures, geotechnical failures, bad materials, and earthquakes.
Let’s break down the causes of structural failure.
Weak Steel Structure
Steel is one of the strongest materials, but it is not infallible. Over time, stress can wear down joints. Steel rusts. Also, some contractors may use cheaper materials, leading to a weaker building skeleton.
Reinforced concrete encapsulates steel beams inside concrete structures. The concrete gets wet, and the steel rusts and expands, cracking the concrete and ultimately weakening the structure. This is often called concrete cancer. The corrosion is not visible to the naked eye, so there is no warning sign unless the concrete cracks become visible.
Buildings near saltwater also must worry about corrosion from the sea air. Salt and oxygen can oxidize steel and other metals much faster than regular air.
Reinforced concrete buildings last 50-100 years, while full concrete structures can last thousands of years.
Most building collapses happen because of an earthquake. Since the ground can shift the foundation, it becomes far less stable. Therefore, earthquake-prone areas (i.e., California) build more flexible structural foundations.
For example, most homes do not use a concrete slab foundation because it cracks too easily. Other parts of the country, however, are not as prepared.
Contractors must follow the latest building codes during construction. However, these codes may not address every potential cause of a collapse. The region also matters as states have different regulations.
In some cases, construction workers may try to cut corners and use shoddy materials. These buildings will not hold up as long since they do not follow proper codes.
Building Design Failures
When a building or high rise goes up, it uses the most reliable structural design blueprints. After a collapse, a structural engineer will look at what caused the structural failure. In some cases, builders may not have anticipated a problem, such as soil erosion or an earthquake.
All buildings should consult a geotechnical engineer before going up. The reason for this consultation is to avoid potential ground and soil failures, such as:
- Ground Shifting. The Earth is constantly moving and shifting, thanks to the tectonic plates underneath us. Over time, these shifts can make the ground less stable.
- Ground Sinking. Loose soil will compact over time, causing a building to sink. When this occurs, the foundation can crack or crumble.
- Erosion. Soil erosion usually happens because of weather, but it could occur for other reasons too. For example, a gas pocket could erupt, causing the ground to collapse over it.
Although contractors try to use the best and strongest building materials, they can fail. Here are some potential material causes of a collapse:
- Retaining Wall Failure. Load-bearing retaining walls should prevent the soil from spilling out. However, if builders did not build the wall correctly, it could crack and fail.
- Foundation Failure After Alteration. Any changes to the building should trigger an inspection. For example, adding extra weight could put too much pressure on the foundation, causing it to crack or sink.
- Fire Damage. Fires can weaken materials like concrete and steel. If a fire has swept through the building, some areas might need reinforcement.
Side Effects of a Building Collapse
A structural collapse is bad enough on its own, but the event can lead to many secondary issues, such as:
- Fires. Gas lines can get ruptured, leaking flammable materials into the air. A single spark could cause an explosion.
- Water Damage. Pipes will burst in the collapse, sending water into the rest of the building. Even partial collapses can create significant water damage. Also, the exposed structure is vulnerable to rain, tropical storms, hurricanes, ice, snow, etc.
- Loss of Life. If anyone is inside the building when it falls, they can get severely injured or die. That said, people can survive in a small triangle of life pocket. After a collapse, a search and rescue team will always search for survivors.
- Falling Debris. The area around a building collapse is dangerous as heavy pieces can fall around it.
Indicators of Structural Collapse
If you want to avoid a condo collapse, you should notify your HOA immediately about any of these indicators:
- Cracks in Building. Any cracks on the walls or the exterior indicate that something is shifting.
- Bulging Walls. If a wall starts to bend or bow, it is trying to support too much weight.
- Sagging Floors. If a floor develops a slant or a sagging point, it does not have enough support.
- Tilting. If your condo seems to have shifted down on one side, it is probably the foundation sinking.
Prevention of Building Collapse
All buildings should get inspected regularly. Condo and apartment buildings must follow their state's recertification process. For example, in Florida, commercial buildings need recertification every 40 years. This process ensures that the building does not have any impending structural failures.
As a condo owner, you should ask to see building inspections to ensure they are up to date. If you notice any signs of structural damage, bring them up ASAP. You can also ask about the master insurance policy to see whether it is sufficient for the building size and what the HOA covers in your unit.
Will Your Condo Insurance Cover Your Unit if the Structure Collapses?
Young Alfred is a fully licensed insurance agency in all 50 states. Most condo policies exclude collapses from coverage. If you are unsure about your policy, we offer a free insurance analysis of your current policy. Condo insurance can be complicated as you try to determine what your building's master policy covers versus your condo policy.
You can get a quote below to get started, then let us know if you would like a free condo insurance analysis.
Hope that helps!
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