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How Multifamily Buildings Fail



In the summer of 2021, ​the 12 story​ Champlain Tower​ condominium​s in Miami ​experienced a major ​catastrophic ​structural failure and collapse​d killing ​98 people and seriously injuring dozens more​. ​While half the building collapsed, the entire structure had to be removed. ​While the tragedy is still under investigation, it’s clear that the degradation of the structure ​from poor maintenance was ​at fault.


The building was constructed to reasonable codes at the time, but the failure was clearly ​the poor building maintenance or lack thereof, ​ responsibility​. And the residents shouldn't get a "free-get-out-of-jail" card. They have a responsibility to report obvious building issues. In this case, conspicuous structural column spalling- surfaces that delaminate and separate- were visible but ignored.


There are a few multi​-story condominium​ or apartment buildings in the North Bay, from Sonoma to Solano counties, however structural degradation is not limited to multi​- story buildings. Often structural failures are obvious, easy to pinpoint. Others are long-term: Slow and hidden. Like an earthquake, they can erupt at any time.


While age​ of the building​ is an easy target, maintenance is the most important preventive measure to minimize future tragedies. The Miami Champlain Tower collapse was avoidable and most condominium deterioration in the North Bay communities could be avoided​ by vigilance and observations.


Let’s start with the basics. In California condominiums are considered a "Common Interest Community” or CIC. The laws and codes vary but maintaining the community or ​individual ​building is the single most important issue, ​usually ​assigned to a board of directors.​ ​Home ownership of all types of housing peaked at 60.7% in 2016 and presently is at 55%. ​That means 45% of our population rent. Escalating home selling prices have made condominiums an attractive alternative ​to single family homes ​but the​ condos are also being snapped up by buyers to rent out. Over 64% of the condominiums in California today were built in the 70s and 80s. Construction standards were minimal and CIC‘s were created to minimize, not enforce​,​ maintenance.


Who are buying condominiums today?

  • One out of four​ residential purchases are by single males or females, with females accounting for over 60% of unmarried purchases​.

  • 13% of buyers shop for multi-generational homes to include grandparents or grandchildren, known as boomerang families.

  • Most buyers today will be buying into a 34 year old average age condominium project.

  • New condominiums ​tend to be oriented to Seniors and move-downers, anxious to leave their sprawling home for smaller one level, elevator-serviced complexes.

  • High maintenance fees​ tend to drive young potential buyers out of the​ new​ CIC market.

​T​he single most important​ job of a CIC or HOA is maintaining ​the building and keeping a vigilance over the community. Multifamily housing and C​I​C‘s will be the primary path for first time ​home ​buyers. Buying a fixer-upper ​ as a means of entering the California housing market will elude most ​first-time home buyers.


The dream of care-free living has had its ups and downs. I personally have designed over 5,000 homes within CIC’s in my 35 years in business. Most traditional condominiums or town homes built in the 70’s or 80’s that survived litigation from bad workmanship proved to be durable second homes, retirement or “starter” homes for those that liked condensed living and minimal yard responsibilities.


Even the best run CIC’s have their life-cycle problems. If built in the 70’s they probably have plywood exteriors, little or no insulation, single glazed windows and poor roofs. I’m sure if this was your own single-family home you’d call Uncle Archie, the retired builder, to give you a hand bringing your house up-to-date. This doesn’t happen in CICs. Too often the monthly fees for maintenance and for future reserves were originally reported way too low because the builder and sales persons didn’t want to scare away buyers. Those artificially low revenue collections, monthly or annually, barely kept the lawns mowed or the driveways clean, let alone repaved in reasonable conditions. Eventually the siding starts to fail and the single glazed windows are in desperate need of replacement.


For the condominium owners there is only one thing to do: re-examine the community life-cycle, develop a renovation plan and a realistic budget for enhancing the community and convince the other homeowners that an assessment is necessary. Be observant and vigilant.


Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB believes homeownership may start with a condo but will led to greater things

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