Building “failures” and how to avoid them

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What is a building failure?

A building failure occurs whenever a building’s performance does not meet expectations, often resulting in a significant loss of value, inconvenience, loss of use, and in some cases, injury or death. When reasonable expectations are not met, regardless of the nature of those expectations, a building failure has been realized.

Structural failures

In the case of Vancouver Warehouse and Distribution Co, the actual loads placed on the floor exceeded the structural capacity of the floor. This is a clear example of a structural failure. These kinds of failures often make news headlines. Such failures can occur when building owners or users are unaware of structural capacity limits, hidden deterioration, the effects of deferred maintenance upon the building’s structural capacity, a flaw in the original design or construction of the building, or modifications to a building that unknowingly weaken the structure.

Fixing structural failures is frequently very costly and time consuming. For example, the recent structural failures of the Courthouse Square Complex in Salem, Oregon resulted in a four-year evacuation of the building after it was declared “dangerous” by engineers, resulting in lawsuits and a $23 million price tag to repair the $34 million building.

Life-safety failures

Life-safety failures occur when a building doesn’t meet minimum life-safety expectations during an emergency. Such failures can take many forms and the building owners may not be aware of the deficiency until an emergency occurs. Building components may break under minor seismic activity, materials may off gas toxic emissions into the indoor air, or building components may burn so quickly in a fire the occupants don’t have time to escape. In most buildings, the single most effective life-saving feature is the ability for the occupants to escape quickly during an emergency. A building with narrow, labyrinthine-like corridors may fail during an emergency if building occupants, confused and disoriented in crowded hallways, can’t find exits within a reasonable timeframe. In such a case, the failure isn’t due to the types of materials selected, but instead the poor design of the building failed to provide reasonable egress. Life-safety design features are a primary component of the current building codes. Incorporating well thought-out exiting design goes beyond minimum code compliance, and takes the unique character of the occupied building into account.

Functional failures

A building may not perform as intended if the design is not appropriate for the proposed use, resulting in a functional failure. For example, a building that doesn’t meet the business’s growth or technological projections may become obsolete decades before the mortgage is paid off. Functional failures are most typically realized in purchases of existing buildings. Purchasers may overlook certain key requirements for their business, only to find later that the building they just purchased isn’t appropriate for their needs. Many prospective building buyers are lured by an attractive purchase price expecting that the necessary modifications will be cheap or easy to perform, only to discover after closing that significant zoning, structural or practical obstacles stand in their way. In many cases, whatever savings were generated through the initial purchase may be quickly eroded and ownership now becomes a financial hardship.

Feasibility failures

Feasibility failures are the result of improperly considering your financial position prior to construction or purchase. Feasibility failures became so common during the last five years that they may be the single most common lingering impression of the recent recession. Whether it is a homeowner that purchased a house at the very edge of their ability to make monthly payments, or a business that designs an extravagant new corporate headquarters based upon unrealistic revenue projections, feasibility failures can be catastrophic.

Avoiding failures

Given the right circumstances, every building can fail. Significant seismic events, severe weather or unforeseen economic turmoil may cause even well-designed, maintained and financed buildings to fail. Property risks cannot be entirely avoided, but with appropriate actions, they can be managed and minimized through proper planning. Errors that lead to building failure may occur at the very beginning of the project, through improper planning, during the design phase, during construction and even in the operation of the building. Involving knowledgeable, qualified consultants early in the project planning process will help you identify your development priorities, set a realistic budget and timeline, and help guide the project through permitting, construction and operation.

The complexity of the building development and acquisition process requires a knowledgeable team of experts that prioritizes communication and works best in an integrative process. There is no substitute for good preparation when undertaking a significant project. Most engineers, architects, contractors, financial and real estate professionals are happy to discuss these topics with prospective clients, even if the project is nothing more than an idea developed over a weekend. Take advantage of these resources!

Brandon Erickson, PE, SE is the principal of Erickson Structural Consulting Engineers, PC, in Vancouver. He can be reached at brandon@ericksonstructural.com and at 360.571.5577.

Ryan Wilson, AIA, works at Wilson Associates Architect and Planners, AIA, in Vancouver. He can be reached at Ryan@WilsonArchitects.us and at 360.696.4722.

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