Surfside Condo Collapse and How to Improve Urban Life Post Covid

Sunday September 26, 2021

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What Happens Next is a podcast where experts are given just SIX minutes to present their argument. This is followed by a Q&A period for deeper engagement.

This week’s topics include the collapse of the Surfside Condominium complex and the future of the city post Covid.

Our first speaker will be Martin Paull. Marty has been a lecturer at UCLA’s architecture school for the past quarter of a century. He teaches structures to the architecture graduate students. He is the perfect person to ask about the Surfside Condo catastrophe. I’ve read all the newspaper articles about the disaster, but I still don’t really understand what the critical variables that proceeded the downfall were. In complex systems, it usually requires several points of failure. Well, I plan on getting into the weeds and finding out what the likely causes were, what lessons are to be learned, and how safe it is to live in large condo buildings.

Our second speaker will be Edward Glaeser, besides being a good friend of mine, Ed is also the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics and the Chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Ed is the author of the recent entitled Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation. Ed is an urban economist and is an expert in the life and death of cities. Covid like any pandemic makes city living dangerous as proximity to others is problematic which outweighs economic synergies. Ed will be speaking about how cities will adapt and prosper post-covid.


Martin Paull

Topic: What Engineering Failures Were Responsible for the Collapse of the Surfside Condominium?
Bio: Lecturer in Structures at UCLA Graduate Department of Architecture and Urban Design for past 24 years


Larry Bernstein:
Let’s begin today’s program with our first speaker Marty Paull. I want to open with a quote from the mayor of Surfside which is “buildings like this don’t fall down in America, This is a third-world phenomenon.”

Martin Paull:
I was horrified when I first saw the video of the collapse of Champlain Towers. What could have caused such a significant structure to fail? Without an explosion, my first guess was a sinkhole. I’ve since watched many videos, read numerous news, no sinkhole. Many engineers have started to talk about weak concrete, congested steel, how rusting steel expands, and how awful salt water is in the cracks of concrete structures. These may all be true and may be contributory, even central to why the collapse happened that day. But the video of the collapse says other things, too, things I don’t hear yet in the discussion. I see a local failure in a parking structure, leading to a disproportionate response from an adjacent 13-story apartment building. This is classic progressive collapse.

Maybe the parking structured design and construction were built to code. Maybe they weren’t. The investigations will tell us that. But code is not the good housekeeping seal of approval. Building to code is not in an endorsement of the project. It’s a level that says, “If you build below this, we’ll stop you.” Code is just the beginning. I’m concerned about the questions being asked by the investigators. Will they ask other questions, pursue issues other than strength of the material, sizes of the columns? Will they look at the philosophy of design, of the process? NEST, the federal agency doing the major investigation, is a very capable organization, but I haven’t heard that risk analysis is a major part of the discussion yet. I hope it is. Design approach includes strength and risk. Strength asks, how to keep a structure up? Risk asks, what happens if the structure fails?

Surfside code requires re-certification when a building is 40 years old, but corrosion left to continue for three to five years can lead to disaster. It accelerates. Timing is a part of risk that needs to inform rules like this. Are these two buildings, the apartment tower and the parking structure, actually of the same type? They’re both steel reinforced concrete, buildings of similar spans from column to column, sounds quite similar. But look at them from a risk point of view, which is more likely to be overloaded, an apartment house roof or an open plaza with room for new planters and trees being moved around with forklifts? Which is more likely to have corrosion from leakage continue.

If the apartment tower roof leaks, the tenants will scream bloody murder until it’s fixed. In the parking structure, there’s no such rush. Hang some sheathing from the ceiling to protect your car, but otherwise wait. These two buildings are very different from the perspective of risk. Why attach them to each other? Collapse of some of the columns of the parking structure means that some of the columns of the tower will also collapse. They’re the same columns. Have separate columns to restructure, interrupt progressive collapse. Knowing what happened is important. Was the concrete the proper strength? Was the steel so densely placed so congested that the concrete couldn’t bond to it? Were the drawings followed properly during construction?

But are other fundamental questions also being asked. Approaching structural design from a risk or performance point of view might not have allowed a rather vulnerable parking structure, poorly maintained and located where salt-water-driven corrosion could progress easily to be attached to an apartment building. In this case, it appears likely that the pool deck, the roof of the parking structure dropped from the columns, called punching shear, dragging some columns towards the center of the parking area, pulling them out from under the apartment tower. Could the slab connection have been designed to withstand the shear? Yes, but the final choices could have been motivated by risk control.

Should a risk analysis replace strength analysis? No, they’re intimately related. Study failure modes in addition to success modes. Also, consider redundancy, group think, complacency and communication. We need to know how to prevent this type of collapse in the future. But we have another issue. What should we do with hundreds or thousands of existing buildings that are similarly vulnerable or vulnerable in other ways? Should risk analysis be included when re-certifying existing structures, even if, and maybe especially if it was not part of the original design?

This has been a central issue in California where earthquake resistant building standards and methods have changed enormously in recent years. It’s a hot issue. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, the Rogers commission did an extensive study of the disaster. Among other things, the rubber O-rings were found to have eroded and at low temperatures fail. Richard Feynman on the commission at the time criticized NASA’s evaluation of risk and the internal and external communication about it. He insisted on writing an addendum to the report that ended with, “For successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations. For nature cannot be fooled.” Thanks, Larry.

Questions for Paull

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Edward Glaeser

Topic: City Success Post Covid
Bio: Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics and the Chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard University
Reading: Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation is here.


Larry Bernstein:
Our next speaker on What Happens Next in 6 Minutes is Edward Glaesar.
Ed is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics and the Chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Ed is the author of the recent book that was released on September 7th entitled Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation. Ed, please begin with your six minute presentation and that will be followed by a question and answer period. Go ahead.

Edward Glaeser:
Wonderful. Thank you, Larry. So, for most of my adult life, the basic narrative was one in which cities were triumphant, that after the very difficult period of the 1970s when the twin perils of suburbanization and de-industrialization had brought New York City to the brink of bankruptcy, cities like New York had recovered. Now, not all of them recovered, certainly, Detroit and Cleveland were still in difficulty, but they became safer. Some cities became safer, became far more prosperous, became more expensive, and it really seemed as if the future was assuredly as urban as it could possibly be. Now, all of that seemed like it came crashing down in March of 2020 when, because of COVID-19, we, in a sense, saw the rapid-fire de-urbanization of the world, because at their heart, cities are the absence of physical space between people. Cities are density, proximity, closeness.

I wrote this book because I was worried about the urban world. I was worried about the threat of pandemic disease. And I was worried, particularly as the pandemic rolled on about the threat of remote work, meaning that people abandon offices, abandon face-to-face contact, and abandon cities. I am still worried, but I am not worried about urban life as a whole, which I am confident will continue. But every city is vulnerable. It has never been easier for businesses and firms to uproot themselves and go somewhere else. And so the tendency of particularly those on the left in cities to see the rich as a piggy bank that can just be cashed anytime you want, to see firms as being something that are a problem rather than a solution to a city’s needs, that’s deeply worrisome to me.

And I think going forward, the policy parts of this book are both about fighting pandemic, which is vital for protecting our urban future, but also for providing possibilities of a world in which there’s more opportunity in cities, in which is more affordability in cities, in which police treat every human being with respect and dignity, but also effectively fight crime.

So, the book begins with history. It begins by tracing thousands of years in which there has been a dance between death and urban life. From the plague of Athens that slew Pericles, to the plague that derailed the Emperor Justinian’s attempt to bring the Pax Romana back to the Mediterranean world. Pandemics have been part of cities. Those plagues, Athens and Constantinople were fairly devastating to the civilizations that they struck. By contrast, for most of the past 650 years, our urban worlds have been quite resilient to pandemic.

And we do this in chapter three. In the 19th century, first yellow fever, and then cholera struck down our cities. And these didn’t stop urbanization from occurring. In fact, our cities rallied. Our cities built the public health technology. Sewers, aqueducts that enabled them to become much safer, that enabled them to continue to grow without people dying. And in a sense, the process of pragmatic collaboration is exactly what we need now. In the 19th century, that world of aqueduct building was the moment in which governments of all levels transitioned from being overwhelmingly agents of death, which is what governments did prior to 1800, to being agents of life, that are agents that actually do good rather than doing harm.

Over the past 100 years, we’ve had a blissful century in which we forgot since the influenza epidemic of 1918, 1919. We forgot how much harm diseases can do to our cities. Now we hopefully remember. And we hopefully recognize not just that our bodies are at risk, but that our economies are at risk as well. Over the past 100 years, as automation and outsourcing have pushed people outside of factories into the great urban service economy, the face-to-face work, leisure, hospitality, retail, trade, where the ability to serve a latte with a smile was an employment safe haven from when the factory disappeared. But those jobs can disappear in a heartbeat when a smile becomes a source of peril, rather than a source of pleasure.

And so fighting to pandemic-proof our cities is not just about those cities. It’s about all of the face-to-face urban economy, face-to-face economy everywhere. Because in fact, this airborne pandemic can strike the South Dakota’s as easily as it can strike Brooklyn.

So, one part of the book is about why our health system failed so badly, because we never bothered to actually create a system that was about health. We created a financial system that was about insurance that led to a federal government that was willing to spend oceans of cash, but not actually to make decisions that would actually protect life. And simultaneously a need for a stronger international system, that involves monitoring the outbreak of pandemics, hopefully trying to do a little bit more in terms of getting quarantines to work effectively, doing more in terms of paying for sanitary infrastructure in the developing world, and then expecting as a quid pro quo for that, that there will be more restrictions on the types of interactions that can cause disease.

The impact of every natural disaster is mediated by the strength of civil society when it strikes. And America’s cities were much less robust in 2020 than they were in 2001 when the terrorists struck the Twin Towers. They’re much less robust because cities appear to have been doing a very poor job of taking care of their poor citizens. They appear to be doing a very poor job of making sure that the police treat everyone with decency, and they seem to be doing a very poor job of providing affordable housing for everyone.
So, in some sense, the book is a cry for a pragmatic agenda of making our cities effective at doing what cities are always supposed to be. They’re supposed to be places where poor people can turn into middle class or rich adults. And that has been happening too rarely. And so we’re really calling for more freedom, fewer limitations on the ability to build. Because only private sector development can deliver the types of and the amounts of housing that we need for our cities to become truly affordable.

We need to actually take effective government more seriously. The right answer in 2021 is not more government or less government, but better government. At the local level, and at the national level as well. This requires actually finding out what works. In some cases, we have reasonably good solutions. So in the case of policing, we need something like a dual mandate, just like the Fed, where you have a mandate to both stop crime, a mandate to treat everyone decently. You need to have mechanisms that create incentives for that like regular surveys of people to ask them how they’re being treated with decency. And then we need to fire police chiefs who don’t manage to deliver on the dual mandate. But of course, I believe very strongly you don’t get something for nothing. And if you want police to both be nicer to everyone and to stop crime, you’ve got to pay them more. You’ve got to go the opposite of defunding the police. And I think that’s what pragmatism requires.

In the case of upward mobility, schools are our primary channel. And here, I think we have to admit that we don’t know what works. One of the things that we emphasize over and over in this book is that you need to have the humility to learn to effectively change the quality of government, to effectively fight pandemic. In the case of schooling, we fought from top-down schooling reform movements for the past 20 years, and have been fairly ineffective at moving the needle. For all the fanfare of No Child Left Behind or Race To the Top, they didn’t really solve the problem of underperforming urban schools. They didn’t really solve the problem of America as a whole under-educating its children.
So, I think we have to recognize that we need to have something more like an Apollo Program than a Marshall Plan where we don’t just spend, but we recognize that we’ve got to learn what works here. My own personal preference would be to bypass the existing educational establishment entirely and do more with afterschool programs that are competitively sourced to train vocational skills like programming, or like plumbing. And then you pay for performance for the schools that do it.

I am fundamentally optimistic about the future of the city. There is just so much to like about face-to-face contact. There’s so much to like about learning from one another when we’re close to one another. That type of learning that has been powering urban miracles since Socrates and Plato bickered on an Athenian street corner. And I believe that the age of urban miracles is not gone, and the cities will continue to create the collaborative change of invention that have powered humanity’s greatest hits for millennia. Thank you.

Questions for Glaeser

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