Could a building collapse happen here? One of Utah’s top engineers explains

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(ABC4) – Luckily for local residents, the shocking collapse of a condominium building in the Miami area on Thursday morning is “extremely rare,” and a similar event has virtually no chance of occurring in Utah, according to one of the state’s top structural engineers.

Matthew Roblez, who heads up the structural engineering team at McNeil Engineering in Sandy and was named the 2016-17 Engineer of the Year by the American Society of Civil Engineers, tells ABC4 he was shocked by the news out of Florida due to the singularity of the event. Roblez says these kinds of collapses are virtually non-existent in the United States.

“It could be any number of things, and that’s what the investigation will be. So, it could be a design error, it could be a construction error, and it could have been, I hate to say it, but it could have been some form of sabotage, because quite frankly, what makes this so odd is we’re not a third world country and this just doesn’t normally happen. It’s just not a regular occurrence,” Roblez explains.

At this point, what could have caused the 12-story building collapse in Surfside, Florida is up for speculation. The collapse reportedly occurred at around 1:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, and due to a high capacity of residents, many of the 130 affected unit inhabitants are feared dead. At least one death has been confirmed and search and rescue teams have already pulled 35 survivors from the rubble.

While some work was being performed on the roof the building, officials have all but ruled that out as a possible cause for the destruction.

Roblez guesses what could have happened was a long-term deterioration that was invisible to the naked eye and went unnoticed until the sudden disaster.

“I can’t think of anything else that would just cause all of that,” he supposes. “A lot of times in buildings, you might have a pipe leak that is just flowing and seeps into the concrete or something like that and destroys the real reinforcing. No one’s going to know until there’s an issue. A building is a lot like a car engine, you don’t know there’s something wrong until it’s really wrong.”

He continues to explain that what typically happens is that a building’s maintenance staff should be walking around, making regular inspections. Should this person notice anything troublesome, a call is made to an engineer, like Roblez, who can come in, assess the situation, and make recommendations to correct any issues. Roblez explains he recently underwent this process on a downtown Salt Lake City parking structure that was built in the 1970s.

As for the building in Florida, which Roblez found was built in 1980, he is unsure of what could have happened. He wonders if perhaps the construction team, using technology and understanding that has since become outdated, did not foresee any issues that could occur as a result of building in Southern Florida’s challenging climate conditions. Nowadays, and in Utah, when builders raise structures, they adjust the materials accordingly depending on what to expect as the seasons change.

“When we do parking garages here in Salt Lake, we know there’s going to be a lot of salt thrown down, so we take steps to put traffic coatings or admixtures in the concrete. Now maybe in 1980, in Miami, they may not have understood a lot of the climate issues, and so they just put regular concrete or something like that,” he guesses.

While what is sure to be an upcoming investigation as to the cause should shed light on what happened on the other side of the country, Roblez is confident that a similar story of a sudden collapse in Utah is not a realistic possibility, even with earthquake concerns constantly looming. He says damage would likely clearly be shown before a building in Utah would come crashing down.

“For something like this to happen is so extremely rare, I would say that there are zero worries for something like this to happen here.”

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