Experts: Lowcountry conditions create harsh environment for buildings

Published: Jul. 1, 2021 at 3:34 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 1, 2021 at 6:42 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - For Lowcountry building experts, Florida’s deadly building collapse has highlighted a common problem for the structural integrity of so many properties, water damage.

“I think the collapse in Miami is concerning mostly because it is the most tragic example of something that happens all too often,” Building Claims Attorney Elliotte Quinn said. “It is looking more and more like this is the result of water getting in and causing rebar to corrode and concrete to spall and weaken…Water is the number one enemy for buildings.”

Investigators are still working to determine why the Surfside condo building partially collapsed one week ago, however more and more evidence has shown that water from the complex’s pool area may be to blame.

Since the collapse, Miami-Dade County officials have initiated emergency inspections of all residential properties five stories or higher that are 40 years or older. However, the county already had regulations in place that required older buildings to be recertified to ensure their structural stability.

In South Carolina though, once a building is constructed, it’s up to its owner to routinely inspect its integrity and maintain and repair it.

There are currently no specific state or local regulations that require private building owners to take proactive measures to prevent damage or disasters, according to Charleston building experts.

Quinn said Lowcountry properties could be vulnerable to collapse if issues go unnoticed, and he believes South Carolina could be doing more to protect properties and people inside them.

“So, this is by far the most tragic example, but it’s just an example of something that happens regularly,” Quinn said. “For condo board members or condo owners, it’s definitely going to emphasize how important it is to make sure your building was properly constructed, pursue claims for any improper construction, regularly inspect, timely make repairs, timely perform maintenance.”

Since the condo collapse near Miami, Charleston County building officials have asked their inspectors and plan reviewers to be more thorough when they perform their inspections, regardless of how small or big the project may be. However, those checks happen during the construction, renovation, or repair process, not as a regular check of a buildings’ structural integrity. Officials said that could change though, as they plan to revisit the issue in the near future because of the incident in Florida.

“In fact, the building department is having a discussion about the most recent incident and how we can improve and do our part to avoid a catastrophe like what happened in Florida. Our current standard is the building code. Each inspection should meet the building code requirements as required by the adopted building code,” Charleston County building officials said in a statement.

“Obviously, everybody is concerned about their investment in a building, in a piece of property. But this definitely hits home about what real consequences there could be,” Quinn said.

In recent years, at least two buildings in the city of Charleston were evacuated because of structural issues that could have been disastrous if they remained unnoticed.

In 2017, crews discovered the façade of a 200-year old building on King Street had detached.

Then in 2018, condo owners in Pelican Pointe Villas off Folly Road were told to leave after termites destroyed the integrity of the building’s stairs.

“We need to remind ourselves and remind our building community that the buildings need to be maintained, that we need to pay attention and know our buildings,” Charleston Chief Building Official Ken Granata said. “When we see something or feel something, we investigate it and have professionals look into it because you never know what lies beneath.”

Officials said if you see something, say something, and if your property’s owners or management aren’t listening, report any issues to your local city or county building officials.

Building experts said properties in Florida and the Lowcountry of South Carolina face similar hazards that need to be monitored and addressed, and the worst for any building is water.

“I do think there is an epidemic of bad construction that doesn’t properly deal with water in America,” Quinn said. “In Charleston, we do have sort of a confluence of problematic factors. We have a lot of rain. We have a lot of wind which causes wind-driven rain, and we are next to salt water…Salt water will corrode things, any kind of metal. So, we have a number of different things that make this a harsh environment for buildings.”

Granata added that seismic activity, flooding and termites can cause major issues for homes and businesses in the Charleston area.

“The message we are trying to convey today is, be aware of your building,” Granata said. “Hopefully it’s something that can be repaired, most things can be repaired. But sometimes, it rises to the level that we have to think about occupant safety.”

Quinn said South Carolina could improve building awareness and safety by requiring more regular inspections, ensure building owners keep sufficient funds on hand to address problems in a timely fashion, and make it easier for owners to hold builders’ accountable.

“Over the last decade or so, across the US, the big builders have pushed back on construction defect claims,” Quinn said. “Rather than limit builders’ liability, we should be holding them accountable.”

Residential structures are the focus of concern for other parts of Charleston County.

Eric Lutz, the building official for the city of Folly Beach, said responsibility for ongoing maintenance and evaluation lies with the owners.

“The City of Folly Beach has no requirement for long term recertification of multifamily structures,” Lutz said in a statement. “The City does respond to specific claims related to life safety concerns and structural issues. If any occupant has such a concern, they are encouraged to contact the City’s Building Department. Staff will review all claims and decide if there is a need for action on the part of the city. The city has a strong record of responding to specific claims related to unfit buildings and requiring those repairs deemed necessary to keep residents safe.”

Sullivan’s Island remains unique compared to most beach communities because it has no hotels, condominiums, or multi-story high rise commercial buildings or multi-family dwelling units.

“The Town zoning ordinance limits the principal building height to 38 feet. Moreover, given FEMA flood zone construction requirements, the foundations are generally very secure and stable,” Town Administrator Andy Benke said. “At this time, the town has no plans for structural inspections. However, the Building Department will respond to residents with questions.”

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