Why Buildings Fail – Sleuthing Out the Causes

Why Buildings Fail - Sleuthing Out the Causes

(Note: This discussion post is aimed at students in the Building Failures and Forensic Techniques class in Architectural Engineering at Penn State)

One of the best ways to learn about the failure of buildings and related systems is to look to the vast numbers of examples and case studies that have been written on the topic. Two older, but great introductions to the topic, include the articles “Sleuthing out building failures” (Ref. No. 1-1, Architectural Record, July 2006) and “Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic”, (Ref. No. 1-2, Architectural Record, Oct. 2006.) Both of these articles delve into historic case study examples, failure trends and statistics, and structural and architectural system failures.  Some of the causes of these examples seem obvious and you have likely seen them before; leaking windows and roofs, deteriorated concrete sidewalks and steps, space temperature control issues, bouncy floors and sagging floor joists to name but a few. Other failures are far more catastrophic. Pieces of masonry facades falling off buildings, collapse of bridges or gas station canopies due to vehicle impact on up to partial or complete collapses of a building leading to the loss of life.   The Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkways, Pier 34 nightclub in Philadelphia and the L”Ambiance Plaza lift slab construction collapse in Bridgeport, CT are unfortunately but a few examples of this later category.

As the Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic article notes, falling facades can be catastrophic but the much more common and mundane problem with facades is water infiltration. Statistics, especially recent and accurate ones on building system failures are difficult to obtain. It is safe to say however that relative to the more routine failures, water penetration and resulting damage to roofs and facades results in the highest number of legal claims and amount of claim damages.


What causes all these different types of failures? As noted in the two articles previously mentioned and the Why Buildings Fail discussions in class, the reasons are quite varied.  It is worth noting that often it is not a single cause but a situation when several items come together in a negative fashion with the result of over whelming our “safety factors” and the built-in reserve capacity of materials and systems, sometime in conjunction with poor detailing or construction practices.   For example, consider the case of a two story parking deck in the northeastern United States.  An initial water resistant coating had been specified but it is not clear if it was ever applied or maintained.   Corrosion in the reinforcing weakened the concrete deck resulting in a reduction of overall load capacity.  However, under normal automobile loading the deck was performing from the perspective that it was resisting the applied loads.  The upper deck was directly accessible from grade from an alley on the high side of the structure and no oversize or height barriers were in place although there was an indication that some sort of barrier had been present at one time.  On the day of the failue an RV pulled up the alley and swung onto the upper parking deck.  The resulting wheel load was enough to push the deck over the limit and one set of wheels on the RV punched through the concrete slab.  Fortunately no one was hurt but the combination of lack of care and maintenance leading to corrosion and the oversize / overweight (for that facility) RV that entered because the security bar was not in place combined to cause the failure.

Readers of this post and the referenced documents are asked to provide comments, discussion and suggestions / solutions to the building failures problems we encounter on a daily basis as an introduction to more detailed study of these topics throughout the coming weeks.



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67 Responses to “Why Buildings Fail – Sleuthing Out the Causes”

  1. Jared P
    September 7, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    Buildings can fail because the architect fails to regard real world conditions and only gives concern to space he/she creates. Arrogance in architects is a common trait because they think less as practical design professionals and more like overly zealous artists. They see their vision of space to be the highest priority and they typically are not fond of practicality. Failures, which includes failures to perform, occur when the complexity of the design become to much for the engineers and contractors to manage and so the design functions very inefficiently, meaning the enclosures or the structure perform badly.

    In the Book Why Buildings Fail, the Sydney Opera House is mentioned. This iconic structure that many know, thanks to a Pixar movie, is actually very bad at being a opera house. Designed by Jorn Utzon in 1956, the original partii for this building was to make the roof cladding shads of a complete sphere. This vision was incredibly bold and innovative which is why we know it so well today. However, Jorn was not and opera house designer and did not account for the interior space of the building. The stage and orchestra pit were shrunk in order to fit all 2,700 seats. Since the design came about so early, it is also doubtful that acoustics were ever considered in this design. An irregular roof would also have irregular sound reverberations, meaning the sound quality would probably vary based on which row you sit. This building therefore fails to perform because this design neglected its primary function.

    There have been other failures because of architects lack of understanding and reasoning. Frank Gehry designs every building in this manner. His concert hall in Los Angles has a facade of concave metal that concentrates the suns rays into cars and melts the upholstery. His Stata Center in MIT’s campus is not known for having a water tight facade, or having a good aesthetic design for that matter.

    Architects are very much in their own world for the most part when you see the architecture being to complex to function or perform well. They are very often a non-negotiable about what they want to design and leave very little ability for the engineer and contractor to collaborate with them. Even in smaller projects for today’s design professionals, you will be hard-pressed to find architects that are a notably collaborative in design. It continues to create issue with the way enclosure are built, the way structures are designed when the architect is resistant to an engineers suggestions. It is understandable that not all architects are incapable of rational judgement for designing buildings; however, it there would seem to be a large trend of expensive enclosure repairs or displaced functionality that can usually be traced back to a non-negotiable architect.

  2. Megan F.
    August 29, 2017 at 5:50 pm #

    When designing and construction a building in most areas of the US, horrific natural disasters are not always considered. People do not design for extreme wind/rain loads and flooding because it may not ever happen. As we have seen over the years, there have been billions of dollars in damages due to natural disasters (fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.). Hurricane Harvey is another hurricane to follow the horrible events of Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of people are left homeless and injured and it will take years to repair what was lost. There should be lessons learned from the previous hurricanes and from Hurricane Harvey happening right now to protect buildings from future damage.

    Homes are built to resist the natural elements to a certain extent. But when these forces are set to an extreme high, the structures fail. During hurricane Katrina, the water levels rose so high pouring over and destroying the levees that protected New Orleans. Eventually the levees were rebuilt to a better standard. Homes were completed wiped out or lucky enough to survive and be repaired. Some were elevated above the flood elevation. Similarly, after Hurricane Sandy, a lot of homes near the coast were raised above the flood elevation to prevent flooding in the future. Storm water management is a huge contributing factor to the severity of flooding in the areas of these hurricanes. For a city like Houston, it is hard for the water to find a place to escape.

    Obviously, water is catastrophic to building structures; Steel corrodes, concrete cracks, wood falls apart, and mold forms. After a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey, it is important to inspect all property and perform necessary repairs as soon as possible in order to occupy the space again and prevent mold from forming. It is also important to note pre and post flood damage. I learned this summer a little about water damages (nothing compared the scale of damages in Houston). Some things to look out for are discoloration of concrete, bowing of structural members, cracking/direction of cracking. Vertical cracking can sometimes be caused by settlement but, horizontal cracking in concrete should raise some caution. Flooding can cause pressure inward on a building causing horizontal cracking that can significantly decrease the capacity of the wall. I am interested in learning more about inspections after natural disasters and seeing how the buildings down in Texas are repaired once the storm calms.

    • mkev
      August 30, 2017 at 7:21 am #

      Great comments Megan! In particular, looking at patterns of cracks to help determine the problem or cause of failures is something we will be doing in class throughout the semester. While looking alone doesn’t always give you the full answer it almost always helps you narrow down the cause.

    • Shubham K.
      August 31, 2017 at 12:38 am #

      I completely agree with you. We definitely do not design for the extreme weather conditions and end up in the same situation every time we are hit with a hurricane or an earthquake. Even the cities that have a higher probability of hitting natural disasters are not prepared for them.

      We can draw parallels from the catastrophic 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan. This was a magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan which was followed by a tsunami. There were a couple nuclear reactors on the coastal line. The reactor buildings were designed to resist high-magnitude earthquakes and also to resist tsunami waves by using levees as its line of defense. Fortunately, the reactors did not experience any major damages due to the earthquake and the reactors started its automatic cooling procedures as designed. Unfortunately, the levees couldn’t hold the tsunami waves as a result flooded the reactors. This flooding caused power outage, which interfered with the cooling process of reactors. I was unable to find a reliable source or a report on why the emergency generators did not kick in after the power outage, but knowing that even nuclear plants can be susceptible to failure under extreme weather is scary.

      More information about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake can be found on this link: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/17/world/asia/japan-earthquake—tsunami-fast-facts/index.html

    • Shangmi X.
      August 31, 2017 at 11:30 pm #

      This is a good point to brought up about the extreme nature cause of the building failure. It is hard for us to forecast the extreme weather conditions especially the bad disasters. They are the unexpected situations to be considered while designing for the building. There are so many cases like the Hurricane cases you mentioned which left many people homeless and even many people died from the natural disasters. For example, earthquake is a very common type of disaster happened in the history and caused a lot of damages. People are normally not die from the earthquake itself but the collapse of the building that people get buried under the ruins of building and their bodies were pressed by the slab or beams. I think it is necessary to consider with high standards and think of all different conditions when designing the building. It is better to accept damages of the building instead of whole building collapses when under the extreme natural condition.

  3. HarryB
    August 29, 2017 at 8:34 am #

    A common theme between all three case studies is a failure of communication.
    In the Save on Foods, Station Square case there were two different physical causes to the failure of the building: undersized beams and insufficient bracing. I would argue that the real cause for the collapse was poor design practice created by inadequate communication. The beam was reduced and extra concrete was added without a design check. These are both symptoms of poor communication.
    In the Bailey’s Crossroads case the collapse was caused by one mistake, the premature removal of the forms was the cause of the collapse. The design team was ultimately held responsible. It was a failure to properly communicate the specifications of the concrete design to the contractor that caused the building to collapse.
    A more integrated design approach is a possible way to mitigate lapses in communication. After the Save on Foods failure, The Commissioner Inquiry sited a competitive bid process was a possible reason for the under designed beam that collapsed. In an integrated design process, the pressure of a low bid is relieved. BIM software, that creates an easier and more visual line of communication could be another solution.
    Communication is not the only key. It cannot protect against unforeseen condition or events but, it minimizes small mistakes in the building. It is those small mistakes that compound and create building failures.

    • Jeremy S.
      August 30, 2017 at 5:56 pm #

      I agree that the building failures we read about were caused by some form of human error. I also think that human error is the number one reason for failures in buildings. I do agree that a more integrated design process and BIM would help mitigate this, however I think there are some levels of human error that we have to accept in construction. Humans make mistakes and as long as we play a role in construction, which we always will, there will always be building failures. The key, I think, is finding a way to eliminate the failures that could potentially harm someone. For example improperly designing a column or beam could potentially harm someone while a broken light fixture probably won’t. Therefore I think there should be more review on systems that without which could cause loss of life (More Redundancy and Progressive Collapse analysis).

    • EllenW
      September 6, 2017 at 8:32 am #


      You bring up a good point that the competitive bid process puts pressure on contractors to deliver the lowest bid. Having the lowest price means that either the quality or the schedule must be compromised. Since schedule is typical fixed by a move-in deadline, quality is reduced so that the bid remains competitive.
      Over the summer, I worked with the repair division of SK&A. A majority of the projects that I was involved with were facade or roof repairs where the tenants were experiencing leaks into the building. Most of these problems were caused by improper detailing of flashing or sealant. After SK&A found the problem and detailed a solution, part of the proposal to the owner was to specify a contractor to perform the work. These contractors were selected from a list of contractors that SK&A had worked with previously and who were known to have high quality and workmanship. This ensured that the repair work was not going to have the same problems as the original construction. If contractors on all projects were selected for their quality of work and not for the lowest price, the mundane failures in buildings would be greatly reduced.

      • Richard T.
        September 6, 2017 at 5:03 pm #


        I agree with you. I think that SK&A’s method for taking care this problem is very practical. On the downside, it’s still their suggestion and the owner still can make the choice of choosing the cheapest contractor. I personally think that with the right amount of experience, any contractor and their crew is capable of building an acceptable system. It more often that bad habits develop and people don’t catch them. If that contractor really does mess up repeatedly, they probably wouldn’t be in business anyways.

  4. Shubham K.
    August 29, 2017 at 8:31 am #

    One of the most prominent issues resulting in building structure or performance failure is water penetration. I think that problems related to water penetration in a building can be caused by a combination of multiple different reasons. In cases like the Hale Koa Hotel Armed Forces Recreation Center, where the accumulation of moisture occurred due to lack of knowledge of the design professional. Failures like these can be prevented by the design team’s ability to grasp the design criteria.

    For an example, in my internship over the summer, I observed a failure in a recreation facility. This facility was equipped with a swimming pool with a walkway surrounding it. The walkway was supported using steel beams and columns and was elevated about 4 feet to match the elevation of top of the pool. The owner of this facility received complaints about the walkway sagging. After looking at the structure closely, the engineers discovered rusting problem in the beams and columns. The design professional did not take into account the moisture from the pool.

  5. Pete Pitilis Jr.
    August 29, 2017 at 8:16 am #

    Over the summer I had the opportunity to work at a structural firm, which has a department in building failures. Although I did not work in that department exclusively, I was able to have some hands on experience. Most of the building failures I observed were due to a lack of waterproofing or improper construction, which allowed water into the building and led to corrosion-related failures. For example, we had a project in Montgomery, MD –a five-story office building– where one of the tenants said they felt the floor lower one morning. Our engineer went out to the site and did an investigation. He found the building had roughly twenty-three exterior columns which were encased in a concrete shell. When investigating the columns, he cut open the concrete shell and observed extreme corrosion on about twenty of the steel columns. The damage varied throughout the columns, and he found that some buckled on themselves while others were partially or completely corroded through. This could have been a catastrophic failure, so the building was condemned immediately and is now under repair.

    It’s amazing to me that a mistake on this level can be overlooked during design and construction. Whether the waterproofing was designed for or not, I feel the designers and contractors should be knowledgeable enough to catch a mistake of this magnitude. This relates to one investigation in the article “Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic Failures” which led to the contractor taking responsibility for the failure because they failed to protect the roof and mechanical spaces properly. Although the contractors were the ones who built it and are who took responsibility, I believe that all parties should have had the necessary knowledge on how this roof system should have been built. By doing this there will be less room for error because by having multiple parties who are knowledgeable of the construction will help ensure it’s constructed properly. It’s easy to point fingers, but something that may seem typical that is often constructed/designed may be overlooked or missed whether it’s by the contractors, architects, or engineers, and not one party should be solely responsible. After all, proper knowledge/coordination between all parties must be established in order to achieve a well-designed, constructed building in hopes of preventing building failures.

    • mkev
      August 30, 2017 at 10:55 am #

      Hard to believe but I have seen 3 similar cases to this in just the past year! How many more are sitting out there no one knows about?

    • Tyler J
      August 30, 2017 at 4:45 pm #

      I remember hearing of a similar case to your experience in one of our classes last year. As mentioned by mkev, this seems to be a common failure with potentially fatal consequences. You mentioned that designers and contractors should be knowledgeable enough to catch some of these mistakes. Often times they may be knowledgeable enough to realize that something isn’t right, but do not say anything. This is especially true of contractors who have been in the business for a long time. People in the field are often reluctant to call up an engineer or architect to tell them they designed something wrong when their understanding isn’t based on education, rather experience. Because of this, they often ignore their instinct and build based on the drawings instead of challenging the designer.

      As others have mentioned in their discussions, much of the industry today is driven by money. Questioning a designer on a given detail also takes significant time. Time is money. Obviously, this is a problem. No amount of time or money can replace lives lost as the result of a building collapse. I read an interesting article over the summer titled “The Ethics of Procurement” which talks about quality based selection as opposed to competitive bidding (see link below). I believe if more bids were selected based on quality rather than price, perhaps mistakes such as the ones made on your project this summer could be avoided.

      You also brought up a great point about multiple parties being responsible. I believe as an industry, the best way to start eliminating some of these mistakes is for everyone involved in the building process to care enough about building failures to stop work and ask questions when they think something is wrong. Most construction companies have adopted strict safety policies to keep workers safe during construction. Even though these policies sometimes take a little extra time and cost more on the front end, keeping people safe is worth the extra time it may take. The same is true with design and construction. If taking the time to verify a detail prevents the failure of a building, it is time well spent.

      The Ethics of Procurement: http://www.structuremag.org/?p=11909

    • Tyler J
      August 30, 2017 at 4:51 pm #

      I remember hearing of a similar case to your experience in one of our classes last year. As mentioned by mkev, this seems to be a common failure with potentially fatal consequences. You mentioned that designers and contractors should be knowledgeable enough to catch some of these mistakes. Often times they may be knowledgeable enough to realize that something isn’t right, but do not say anything. This is especially true of contractors who have been in the business for a long time. People in the field are often reluctant to call up an engineer or architect to tell them they designed something wrong when their understanding isn’t based on education, rather experience. Because of this, they often ignore their instinct and build based on the drawings instead of challenging the designer.

      As others have mentioned in their discussions, much of the industry today is driven by money. Questioning a designer on a given detail also takes significant time. Time is money. Obviously, this is a problem. No amount of time or money can replace lives lost as the result of a building failure. I read an interesting article over the summer titled “The Ethics of Procurement” which talks about quality based selection as opposed to competitive bidding (see link below). I believe if more bids were selected based on quality rather than price, perhaps mistakes such as the ones made on your project this summer could be avoided.

      You also brought up a great point about multiple parties being responsible. I believe as an industry, the best way to start eliminating some of these mistakes is for everyone involved in the building process to care enough about building failures to stop work and ask questions when they think something is wrong. Most construction companies have adopted strict safety policies to keep workers safe during construction. Even though these policies sometimes take a little extra time and cost more on the front end, keeping people safe is worth the extra time it may take. The same is true with design and construction. If taking the time to verify a detail prevents the failure of a building, it is time well spent.

      The Ethics of Procurement: http://www.structuremag.org/?p=11909

    • benP
      August 31, 2017 at 8:07 am #

      Pete, I have seen similar cases of failures from the perspective of a carpenter. I have spent probably 2/3rds of my working career fixing construction defects. A few of them I could blame on engineering, but the majority of them I would blame on prior contractors. In my geographical area, in the light commercial/industrial and residential markets, there seems to be more incompetent contractors then competent. My company always installed and followed in accordance with manufacturer’s specs. It certainly seems like an easy thing to do, but so many do not do it. I have even seen plans from architects that do not meet the manufacturer’s specifications. Because of this, I believe that the manufacturer should play an important role in the design process. At the very least, it helps to reduce liability of the designers and contractors.

  6. Jared P
    August 29, 2017 at 8:03 am #

    Buildings fail because they are usually under designed for the loading it sees over its lifetime. The three ways this can occur are: lack of knowledge of future loading, poor construction, or poor design for carrying loads. A combination of all three of these things can occur and it is unlikely that we will ever be able to prevent them from occurring again. Past failures can be written in codes but it does not prevent new failures from propagating

    Codes can even cause failures like in my internship over the summer, I did several roof layout designs with steel joists. The loading that always controlled was dead load plus snow load. The Common wealth of Pennsylvania uses IBC-09 which refers to ASCE 7-05 for design load calculations. ASCE 7 states the the majority of Pennsylvania should be designed with a ground snow load of 30 psf. When you consider the roof snow load, you can design with a reduction factor of 0.7 to give you around 21 psf. However, common practice in my firm was to design with the full 30 psf ground snow load. The reasoning is because central PA sees many roof collapses with what the code allows.

    Failure occurs in this case because the engineering design minimum is too low for adequate building life preservation. Even if engineers believe the need to design higher, there is a resistance from contractors who only wish to spend enough to meet code. While an amendment to this code is in order, it is a legislative battle that cost to much time to argue if your a practicing engineer. In the meantime, engineers who design cheaper will only meet code and be putting the general public at risk.

    • mkev
      August 30, 2017 at 11:01 am #

      30 PSF roof for PA was a tradition of the “old timers” before PA had required codes such as the PA UCC which references the codes you note. We will be discussing this exact topic in the near future including looking at the PA snow maps.

      Contest: First person to tell me the ground snow load for State College wins a prize!

    • David K
      August 30, 2017 at 4:06 pm #

      In addition to the failure modes that you have described, there exists causes that are based on building materials. This is the case largely for building enclosures. Failure to select appropriate materials for a given environment is the cause for a majority of what we refer to as building failures. It is less common for a building to fail from purely a structural miscalculation.

  7. Tyler J
    August 29, 2017 at 7:27 am #

    Over the last several summers I’ve interned with multiple engineering and construction companies. One similarity I’ve noticed is that a building today is designed and interpreted many, many times at varying levels of detail throughout the construction process. Even a basic slab is originally designed and drawn by an architect. It is then given to a structural engineer to further size and design. Next it is passed to a contractor who likely will hire a detailer to detail the slab. The detailer will send his drawings back to the contractor to interpret and build the structure. Similar to a game of telephone, the more people that design and interpret an idea, the further a design can get from the original intent. It is no surprise that many small errors can add up to one catastrophic problem.

    As others have pointed out, there is no easy solution to building failures. For some major collapses, lessons can be learned due to the publicity that is received. For example, most know of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and have learned the lesson of how to design for similar wind conditions. However, smaller failures, such as building enclosure failures, are not often talked about or published in news articles and magazines. As a new engineer, I automatically know much less about these small failures even though they are the most common and costly type of failure.

    As the damage continues in Texas from the recent hurricane, I’m curious how to classify buildings failures in relation to the flooding. If a flood causes water damage to a home, I would say that is a building failure. However, a lot of the US has the potential to flood. To what level should engineers design for these types of events? As far as I know, there isn’t significant precedent or code for the structure of a single story home complete submerged in water. I am curious to hear what others think!

    • mkev
      August 30, 2017 at 11:05 am #

      Good point Tyler. It is a “failure” because it is damaged and must be repaired or replaced. Rarely do we design structures to be “waterproof” from a flood. Flood design often involves elevating the buildings so the water can flow through the ground level etc. I think the real failures however is from a zoning, planning and design perspective of how many of the damaged building do we rebuild in the exact same location in the exact same way.

    • CamilleS
      August 30, 2017 at 2:36 pm #

      You make a point that the more people that see a design of a structural element, the more small errors can add up to create a major issue. I assume that you do not mean technical peer review, which is used by industry professionals to catch small mistakes that can lead to catastrophic errors. Perhaps that is an important distinction to make, the cause of building failures is not that too many people work on a design, but that too many people work on the design without communicating to one another. Work put out by an engineering firm is designed, checked and stamped by people that can communicate with each other simply by walking 100 feet. But using peer reviews, specialized consultants, and detailers requires a high level of communication to be maintained between different firms that may not be present. This breakdown in communication can be where most failures caused by poor design come from.

      In comment to the catastrophic damage caused by hurricane Harvey is Houston, I would classify that as a failure that happened at the first step of the design process: site selection. Due to rapid suburbanization common in many sunbelt cities, and Houston’s relative location to the Gulf of Mexico and the Houston Port, many homes and subdivisions have been built in flood plains. Given, these flood planes may by for the 100 or 500 year storm, but we are seeing stronger and stronger storms happening more frequently. Perhaps that is the responsibility of all people on a project, not just the design engineer or the architect, to consider the implications of design decisions even if that isn’t explicitly your job.

      • Tyler J
        September 1, 2017 at 11:02 am #

        As you assumed, I did not mean technical peer review, rather the design being passed from architect to engineer to detailer to contractor. Therefore, I agree that most failures are caused by a breakdown in communication leading to design flaws.

        I also appreciate your comments regarding the damage from Hurricane Harvey. I agree that site selection is one of the best ways to prevent building failures due to flooding. Few homes are designed to resist multiple feet of water. The article below goes into detail about the 100 and 500 year floods, specifically in Houston. Houston was unprepared for any type of significant rainfall, let alone a 500 or 1000 year flood. The article also points out the difficulty in creating policy based on the 500 year flood. Most homeowners and insurance companies are willing to take the low risk of a 500 year flood. While these storms are happening more frequently, flood maps still classify Hurricane Harvey and other recent flooding experienced in Houston as 500 year storms. Predicting flood levels is difficult to do, especially when predicting floods that statistically happen once every 500 years. Flood data has only been available for a fraction of that time.

        Should engineers not design structures located in the 500 year floodplain or should engineers design buildings to better handle water when flooding does occurs? I suggest a combination of both. As mentioned by mkev, there are ways to design so that several feet of water do not impact the structural integrity of a building. However, designing in this manner has an impact on cost. It will be interesting to see the type of policy and design change that results from the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.


        • benp
          September 6, 2017 at 9:54 pm #

          Tyler, I believe that we cannot economically design a structure to be capable of being waterproof through a flood. As others have stated; we can however decide the location of the structures, or perhaps the elevation of the structures. As a little kid growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania, I can remember the fall of 2004. We were hit by a few large storms in a very short period of time that saturated the ground leading up to widespread flooding when hurricane Ivan hit in mid-September. Many homes that were located along creeks and rivers where flooded, many completely ripped off of their foundations. In the next 3 years, I can remember my father’s construction company doing many repairs to these structures.
          The majority of this work was lifting these structures out of the flood plain. We would slide “I” beams under the structures, build crib stacks and slowly raise the structures straight up in the air. Once raised up, we would install a new first story which was basically designed to flood. Sometimes this would be stilts, and sometimes we would install a masonry type structure. Once this was done, we would lower the existing house onto the new structure.
          My hope would be that the structures that are effected in this year’s floods are re-built similarly. If the property owners can afford this fix, it would help to ensure in the next storm that they are better protected. In my area, there were only a few of us with the equipment and abilities to perform this scope of work. This naturally raises the price and takes longer to get these structures raised. My thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by this storm and the personnel that will be going in to perform this work for a safe and speedy recovery. This work certainly is dangerous.

  8. Keunhyoung Park
    August 29, 2017 at 12:32 am #

    It is reasonable approaching to avoid an error in investigation of building failure that expecting various factors are involved to the building failure. Because one fatal mistake that can cause building failure would be eliminated since there are so many developed building codes to guide people whose workings to be integrity. On the other hand, people’s insight often missed less crucial errors in building process from design to construction because it is hard to expect the error’s results. So, why some buildings failed to achieve proper performance even though there are numerous documents to prevent it?
    As mentioned at the article “Failure Trends-Studying Typical Patterns in Building Failures” (M. Kevin Parfit) and “Sleuthing out building failures” (Deborah Snoonian), lack of information in building construction process results in the collapse of structural integrity. Building industry is huge area embracing various working people. And, to construct a building, diverse people in each part of building construction share their own distinct knowledge to work together. However, there is no perfect way of distributing the information to each other since it is hard to organize these broad and deep knowledge in these areas which are developed as much as they have existed. Consequently, communication between the workers would be superficial level in realistic reason, and result in unfortified information of building construction.
    To give an example, when I was an intern in a structural engineering consultant firm in South Korea, I observed the lack of profundity in the communication with design and construction firms while I was a messenger between them. All the companies have broad experience and profound knowledge from their long career. At the same time, I feel that there is no effective way to digest their background knowledge behind in the controversial situation. I could not find central storage of knowledge from the experience of the field. In this manner, the industry relied on only personal attainment from his own experience to reduce the error in actual construction process.
    In these days, while adopting performance based concepts, more complex codes can cause more frequent mistakes in custom way such as putting more rebar to make even number. Because in under the hood of codes there are more numerous background knowledge whose character are in contrast to conservative way.
    I witness the result of the miscommunication during structural inspection of a commercial building. Beam and column size or the number of rebar in Reinforced Concrete were different from the confirmed drawings of building because a little bit poor quality of design specification drawing. The lack of concrete information in the drawing let constructor choose wrong design based on his own experience.
    Same problems are often occurred in more large construction project. While I was a researcher after getting master degree, I worked in the research project related to Dondaemoon Design Plaza (DDP) and Lotte Tower which are large atypical-formed complex and high-rise tower in Seoul, Korea. Even though they were built by most major companies in South Korea, there were so many changes in the last confirmed drawings at the end of construction due to miscommunication during the construction. I and my peer researchers should devote to solve the mistakes during the construction process.
    Although it looks impossible to find the perfect way in communication, we (all workers to build something) are always trying to find the better way. The start will be improving drawing because it is most normal way of the conversation between the workers. Thanks to computation resource that are developing and getting cheaper we can exchange more broad information in more intuitive way such as 3D drawings. Revit and 3D CAD can be the example of these trials. They can help to catch the error in design or construction result by more rapid comparison the building to informative drawings. And increasing educated workers in the field who learned failure cases will understand meaning of the technologies, and then maximize the effect of them.

    • mkev
      August 30, 2017 at 11:08 am #

      Always room for improvements in communication as you note. Relative to the first part of your comments I am only half kidding when I say that perhaps we need BIM models that use AI to point out problems in our designs based on past experience and learning…

    • WangjaeY
      September 6, 2017 at 11:14 pm #

      I totally agree your point of miscommunication between contractors and designers. Also, I think that last minute fix and changes during the construction is what the designers have to deal with and overcome. I have worked on many residential construction projects that the contractors ask design changes to fix their mistakes during the construction. Sometimes, it is easy fix and sometimes it is not.
      I also like you brought up 3D drawings or even drawings in color. It is a great tool to understand what is actually going on between architects and engineers.

  9. WangjaeY
    August 29, 2017 at 12:26 am #

    I totally agree that Prof. Parfitt brought up the importance of the water penetration to the building structures in last class. I think it is very hard to determine what caused the building failure after it happened, especially when water brings the problem.

    I think that failures caused by water can be fixed by couple simple ways. First of all, the designers/architects should understand how the waterproofing works and construct the details to drain the water properly. Second, the contractors should follow the details designed by the engineers and architects. I saw many failures in residential constructions that the contractor did not follow what is in the construction plans and details. Many contractors has a tendency to follow how they used to work with when they face something new without approval from the designers. This little stuff can bring the catastrophic failures in the house.

    I think that the designers should be aware of how to utilize the code. The code only provides the minimum design guidelines for the building design. Many homeowners complain about the floor vibrations. There is nothing in the code to regulate the floor vibration, except the recommendation from the manufacturers. As a structural engineer, it is not considered as a failure in the design, but the homeowners can consider this as a failure, especially in performance. So, to prevent this kind of failures, the engineers can use their own design guideline to improve the performance of the building structure.

    Therefore, to reduce the failures in construction fields, I think that it would be necessary for architects, engineers, and contractors to make sure that there is no discrepancy or confusion in understanding of the plans and details.

    • Shubham K.
      September 7, 2017 at 12:54 am #

      I agree with you on making sure architects, engineers, and contractors are on the same page. I have encountered situations when the contractor uses a certain method of construction even though the drawings ask to do something different. Sometimes experienced contractors come along problems that were missed by the engineer or the architect. Regardless, I think discussing what method to use for construction and making sure everyone is on he same page is very important to avoid failures in buildings.

      • mkev
        September 7, 2017 at 12:57 pm #

        Traditionally in the US, means and methods are left to the contractor on routine work but the end result has to meet the requirements / design intent. As structures become more complicated the engineer needs to make sure there is at least one good way to construct the building in case input is needed to the contractor. Of course, working together on a complicated structure is the best way to help the project be successful.

  10. Perry H.
    August 28, 2017 at 11:49 pm #

    When reading “Sleuthing out building failures” by Deborah Snoonian, one quote of David Odom (vice president of the building services group at CH2M Hill in Orlando) really stood out to me. “No one gets sued over the niggling maintenance issues. Instead you get an unhappy owner and a design firm that often doesn’t know enough about their past projects and problems not to make the same mistakes again.” While this quote is referring to simpler noncritical problems in a building, such as paint that peels or tiles that lift from their substrate, I think it is representative of some of the more serious failures that occur in buildings as well, and it all starts with attention to detail. Both the design professional and contractor can be the culprit of a lack of attention to detail.

    The San Antonio parking garage collapse was due to an absence of grout in the precast column connections. It was found that the grout requirements were identified properly in the documents but never installed. The case study “Parking Garage Collapse in San Antonio” notes that this is not the first case of a precast concrete construction failure due to the lack of attention to grout installation. So on top of this there was a lack of diligence to learn from past mistakes by not only the contractors but by OSHA as well, who had not addressed any grout requirements for precast concrete.

    The Save-On-Foods rooftop parking deck collapse in Canada was caused by undersized steel beams and inadequate bucking resistance. This is an example of negligence by the design professional. It was found that the structural engineer had made calculation errors and non-conservative design assumptions. These types of mistakes cannot go unnoticed throughout the design process.

    Both of these two examples of failures could have easily been avoided if a little more time and effort went into the details, whether it be the contractor looking at the connection detail more closely, or the structural engineer double checking a calculation.

    • Pete Pitilis Jr.
      September 6, 2017 at 7:36 pm #


      It’s amazing that something as simple as grout being left unnoticed throughout the construction process can lead to a building collapse. The failures you mentioned lead me to believe building failures of this nature will always occur simply because the failures are caused by human error. One way to mitigate error is to use a system of peer review and perform proper inspections to ensure the design and construction process are correct. In reality can you ever be entirely sure that nothing was left unchecked?

  11. EllenW
    August 28, 2017 at 11:35 pm #

    From reading the articles, it seems that there is a disconnect between the vocabulary used and the intended meaning of the industry definition. Because the industry’s definition is shifted away from the typical public definition, most people will not understand what is actually occurring. This can lead to various public misconceptions of the severity and extent of the phenomena at hand.
    For example, saying that a building “has a failure of the facade” would lead the general public to assume a catastrophic defect is present and that the building is unsafe to occupy. The reality of the situation could be that there is a leak in the façade, which, although it is a problem, does not create an unsafe condition for the occupants. Using the definition of failures as “any system that fails to perform as intended” can cause unmerited public concern. By using the one term of failures to describe a large range of building deficiencies, the true extent of the situation is not expressed and confusion can occur even among members of the industry.
    As pointed out by Joann Gonchar in Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic, the term forensics is not commonly used in the industry anymore because it carries public connotations of ligations. It does not accurately represent the investigations that are required to thoroughly analyze the situation. The use of the term forensics has changed due to the public’s interpretation.
    Updating the vocabulary used by the industry to properly convey the extent of the situation to the public would remove misconceptions about the performance of and failures in buildings. If the public was truly aware of the issues present in buildings and construction, there would be pressure for the industry to change. This would also change the expectations for new construction to learn from the mistakes made previously.

    • HarryB
      August 31, 2017 at 8:12 am #

      This is a really interesting point. I agree with you that the current vocabulary, “failure” and “forensic” are misleading. I also agree that a more engaged public would help push the industry to learn from its mistakes. Often I hear people talk of new buildings and all they know is how expensive the building will be. For example the new State College High School, has been needed since before I was in High School, over 10 years. I remember for many people the only talking point was how to keep the budget down and minimize increase in taxes. If the public was more informed about the failures of the old high school, they would perhaps be more willing to support a new high school. They might also be inclined to invest more money into making the new building more durable.

  12. Shangmi X.
    August 28, 2017 at 10:54 pm #

    According to the course introduction, we are going to learn about the causes of building failure, failure prevention and maintenance of building in this class. Studying about building failure is necessary which relates to people’s lives. Building are meant to become people’s shelter not a danger or threat to our lives.

    There are many reasons which cause the building failure. Many reasons can be summarized to man cause. There are so many people being involved in a project which includes many stages. All works require everyone’s responsibility and communication with each other. A little neglect can be end with the collapse of the whole building. So everyone in the teams should be taken their own responsibility and be scrupulous to every details.

    Although “It is the destiny of the man-made environment to vanish” said by Mario Salvadori. There are still may ancient buildings are still standing and have been standing for thousands of years. But they do get old and most of them needed renovation in order to keep standing. However, some buildings collapse even when it was still under construction. It sometimes a satire that nowadays we have better technology and advanced methods,but the building might not stabler than the ancient building which has only simple materials and basic tools.
    I think it is because the people in the past were more focus and responsible on their work.

    Moreover, there are also many collapse cases are caused by nature. These are the cases that we can’t avoid which we should also take action to learn how to prevent from the disaster or at least make the situation better.

    As we are learning the historical building failures through class lectures and readings. Case study are helping us learn from the mistakes made by people before and we should take the lessons and not making the same mistake again.

    • HarryB
      September 7, 2017 at 8:18 am #


      I agree with you that the older buildings around today are constructed in a more durable way than modern construction. Although, I don’t think it is necessarily due to construction methods. I think that buildings today seem less durable due to the materials we use today.
      Older buildings were built with heavier Construction materials, these materials often resisted failures due to their mass. As building technology has progressed materials have gotten lighter. A good example of this is the difference between how cavity walls and mass masonry walls resist water. Mass masonry relies on its thickness while cavity walls rely on a vapor barrier. Cavity walls are more common in modern buildings not because the industry has become careless but because cavity walls our preform mass masonry wall in other properties (weight, insulation, cost). Although, it is true that durability has been sacrificed creating less durable buildings.

      • mkev
        September 7, 2017 at 12:49 pm #

        Durability can be viewed in different ways depending on what characteristic you are looking at. Many older buildings have poor thermal and weathering properties when it comes to windows for example. Wall works but window leaks. Is that a failure? Also we often find older buildings that don’t carry as much load as we might design for today. Would we call that a durability issue?

  13. cstefani
    August 28, 2017 at 10:48 pm #

    I would answer that the cause of these different types of failures come from a different cause than directly addressed by the articles. It is caused by miscommunication, or simply a lack of communication. Beginning evidence of failure may not be addressed with a professional until pieces of the building start falling off the building. Design changes made in the field by not be approved by design professionals, and not discovered until they are an issue and an investigator starts asking questions.

    The readings “Sleuthing out Building Failures” and “Sleuthing out Mundane and Catastrophic Failures” highlight the fact that major or minor failures are not the result of one event. They result from multiple errors, miscalculations, miscommunication, misrepresentation, and mistakes. The building industry is a synchronization of many parts, we as architectural engineers know that. Our education gives us a glimpse into the world of other disciplines of engineering, but that doesn’t even encompass all the players in the industry. The life cycle of a building includes designers, engineers, owners, inspectors, construction managers, craftsmen, users, and building maintenance operators. “Many low-consequence building failures, particularly material failures, remain “below the radar” of design firms. Paint that peels prematurely or times that lift from their substrate are typically handled by facility maintenance staff” (Sleuthing out Building Failures). While most professionals would regard these as mundane maintenance issues, when discovered on a new building, they could be evidence of a potential issue. These mundane failures can be evident of design flaws, such as defective materials, water infiltration, inadequate substrate adhesion, or movement in the building structures. If they evidence of issues, an appropriate professional should be consulted as soon as possible to address a possible issue before it becomes catastrophic. With more time, these can become serious issues. Or combined with other design flaws or construction errors, they could become serious issues. So what is the chain of custody to address these potential issues? The knowledge exists to address these potential failures from any phase of a building, but that knowledge has to be applied. Otherwise it could come too late, when a catastrophic failure has occurred.

    Of course, this slippery slope from sagging ceiling panels to collapse is not the rule. Redundancy in design will typically prevent sudden failure while providing signs that something is wrong. But shouldn’t the first safeguard against failures be sound design practice that are informed by continuing education? Professional engineers, designers, and construction managers should understand failure behaviours and causes, as well as the products they’re specifying. On a project, open dialogue that includes forensic engineers, designers, engineers, product manufacturers, and construction managers can allow for everyone to benefit from the knowledge. I believe that constructing those relationship and flow of knowledge is the challenge that the precludes project failures.

    • Perry H.
      August 30, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

      I completely agree that communication plays a huge role in the construction process and can either make a project run smoothly or lead to an eventual failure. Communication is very important between all the parties involved in a project, from the design professional conveying requirement to the contractors, to the construction managers relaying onsite issues to the design professionals. Another slightly different branch of communication would be between the designers within the same office. This is one place where continuing education to inform good design practice could be accomplished. I believe that it is an engineer’s duty to pass on knowledge to the younger generation to help insure that we learn from past mistakes.

    • WangjaeY
      August 31, 2017 at 12:14 am #

      I agree on your point of miscommunication between the different parties in the project. Everyone in the project has different minds to look at the project and want to take care of only what they are responsible and try to quit from it as soon as they are done. Sometimes, they do not care much of interacting each other.

      When I work as a structural engineer in residential construction, the plan review and design check by the code officials is not often occurred. I have worked several counties in PA and WV and only one country requires the design professionals to provide the structural design calculation with sealed to the plan submittals. I think that reinforcing the design check on projects would help the design professionals to look carefully on the plans and designs before the inspections and it would prevent future mundane and catastrophic failures in the building projects.

  14. Megan F.
    August 28, 2017 at 10:08 pm #

    The building failures that are remembered and set a precedent for new regulations are the catastrophic life ending failures. People don’t focus on the smaller less life threatening failures that occur every day. This summer I assisted engineers performing site inspections. We would look at the less obvious failures and it helped me learn to locate what people might not normally consider a building failure. Concrete spalling, water staining, and rusting are very common failures on building facades. This significantly impacts serviceability of the building. The building enclosure is meant to protect the occupants and withstand the natural elements and when it no longer can do that, people are not happy. There must be continuous maintenance and inspections after a building is constructed to ensure that it is performing properly.

    Building inspections were also important to case studies read. The San Antonio parking garage failure could have been prevented if the column connections were inspected and grout was properly put beneath the base plate. At Skyline Plaza, the concrete should have been inspected to verify the shoring was properly removed. Design professionals and contractors should be in constant communication so inspections can be made as soon as a task is complete to verify proper construction and enable the next stage to start.

    Overall, inspections are important during construction and after completion periodically throughout a building’s lifetime to ensure it is always a safe place for its occupants.

    • Dennis B
      August 29, 2017 at 10:06 pm #

      Megan, I do agree with you that the more common building failures are those that many people do not consider when discussing building failures. I would also agree with your opinion on regular building inspection and maintenance. I would like to add that with proper quality control and quality assurance, a lot of the common failures can be prevented.

      On my site this summer there was an individual working for the contractor in charge of the QA and QC work on the site. His job was to document and track any building system that required a test to ensure proper construction, per the spec provided by the design professional. This documentation was then kept on file both physically and digitally for future use. I believe that this was a very good way to keep simple building failures under control. It is always the best solution to stop something at the source of the problem whenever that is possible.

      I would like to point out that some of the errors that cause these failures cannot be detected until they begin to happen. For example, the deterioration of a facade material cannot be accurately predicted. In this case having a structural/building inspection will be able to determine when a facade need be replaced. This is truly important because early detection can prevent total disaster.

      All in all I do agree with your ideas on inspections, but I do believe there are ways to prevent a failure from occurring in the first place in many cases.

    • Pete Pitilis Jr.
      August 30, 2017 at 3:16 pm #


      I strongly agree that having consistent building inspections not only during construction but throughout a buildings lifetime is essential to creating/maintaining a safe environment for the occupants. Looking at the article “Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic-Water woes” the root of this failure occurred because the material wasn’t stored properly which caused the material to have excessive moisture prior to the water resilient coating being applied. This easily could have been prevented if proper inspections took place.

  15. JeremyS
    August 28, 2017 at 9:26 pm #

    I strongly agree with Deborah Snoonian, author of Sleuthing out building failures, in her statement that all buildings fail. Even some of the oldest buildings out there, the pantheon, the pyramids in Egypt, will all eventually fail in one way or another. The big questions are obviously how will a building fail and how can we prevent it?

    It seems as though there are only two main causes for a building to fail. Either by natural causes (wind, seismic, snow, water intrusion, bat crap) or by human causes (improper construction, excessive loading, unaccounted for conditions, poor maintenance). The failures caused by nature are, in my opinion more sudden and devastating than the failures caused by humans. That is however categorizing improper seismic, wind and snow design in the natural causes even though the designer would be responsible. For example even though the designer of the marble panels on the Amoco tower was responsible for the panels cracking it was caused by the changing of temperature and the wind on the panels therefore natural cause. An example of a human cause of failure would be the improper construction noted in the 2nd case study of sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic where the contractor constructed the roof in poor conditions. The building was experiencing water damage but was caused by human error.

    In both articles it is mentioned that the majority of building failures are not catastrophic. Furthermore as stated in the second article “less than 5 percent of building failures end up in court.” Therefore human causes are most likely the majority of building failures.

    I am not yet familiar with the various ways to prevent us from causing buildings to fail however I would recommend that in order to mitigate these errors that quality assurance and routine inspections become more frequent.

    • CamilleS
      September 3, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

      I agree that quality assurance and routine inspections are two very effective ways of mitigating potential building failures. Many failures come from human error, then exasperated by natural causes, and practice of peer review and quality assurance are significant safe guards against these errors.

      In the case of natural causes exasperating human error, at what point is a collapse truly the fault of nature and not human error? In the case of catastrophic natural events, it is the professional responsibility of the engineer to assess what type of extreme weather loading the structure will see over it’s lifetime and design to a level that will prevent failure at most conditions, instead of the extreme and highly unlikely. But in the case of the Amoco tower cladding failure, the designer should have considered the effect of typical weathering and temperature change on the material he selected. The selection of a material depends on a level of knowledge about the materials behavior in typical natural loading conditions, otherwise it should be considered negligent to install that material 200 feet in the air. I would argue that this is a human error, not just a natural cause of failure.

  16. Dennis B
    August 28, 2017 at 8:53 pm #

    The term “building failure” commonly refers to the idea of a major collapse or disaster, this is simply not the case. The fact of the matter is that is is much more common for buildings to fail in other ways such as moisture control, contractor error, malfunctioning material, ect. In many cases it is more simple to prevent a devastating building failure like the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City. As designers it can be easy to overlook some details that may lead to a future failure.

    Over the past two summers I have worked on a large pharmaceutical project in eastern PA. In a project of this magnitude there is a huge number of checks and balances but there is also a huge push from clients to complete the work faster. It is easy to envision how simple it can be to push something through to the next level when under such pressure. The same can be said within design offices during the submittal process, and this work is often times left to entry level employees. While this is a great way for young professionals such as myself to learn, our inexperience adds to the possibility to overlook details that can lead to a failure. There are additional measure that can be made to ensure the success of the project.

    The importance of teamwork is crucial in the construction industry, and although it may seem as though there are rivalries between contractors and design professionals their ability to work together is critical. There are new methods of project delivery available now that are being explored by both engineers and construction manager to ensure the success of the project. This is certainly a step in the right direction as it promotes communication between parties as well as sharing the responsibility in the event of a failure. All components of a team play an important role in the construction of a building. Similar to a football team, a quarterback cannot complete a pass without the wide receiver there to catch the ball. A design professional cannot produce a quality building for the owner without the work of the contractor to build the project.

    Many failures are preventable, and it is important for the team to work together to protect the occupants of the building. It is important to thoroughly review and examine submittals and other documentation to prevent miscommunications. Relaying information is now easier than it has ever been in the past and with the use of new technologies a group can prevent even the small disasters that may end up costing large sums of money.

    • EllenW
      August 30, 2017 at 6:15 pm #


      I also think that teamwork and communication play a huge role in the construction industry. The better the project team works together, the smoother and faster the the project will be completed and the quality of work increases as well. When there is a lack of communication, corners can be cut, problems are not resolved properly, and the quality and success of the project suffers. It seems to me that preventing failures in buildings requires high levels of communication between parties so the intended design is verified and then constructed.

    • Richard T.
      August 30, 2017 at 8:20 pm #


      I agree with you. We should be working more like a team in this industry. Similar to you, I was sometimes asked to check shop drawings just so that they could be sent out or so that someone could say that it was looked at. Rarely did a second pair of eyes look over the work that I did. Another about shop drawings is the assumption that if a couple elements are correct than whole drawing should be correct as well. It makes me uneasy to be learning these habits so early in my career.

    • Nick S.
      September 5, 2017 at 8:52 am #


      I agree with your statement on the importance of teamwork in the construction industry. Teamwork is a essential to a projects success at every stage of construction (Precon, Construction, and Post-Con). Each phase requires this use of teamwork from the owner to the construction manager, from construction manager to design professionals, from construction managers to subconstractors, etc. Each of these individuals working together can drive innovation, reduce waste, and increase quality. Teamwork to me is one of those characteristics that is needed for projects to be successful.

      Now you state that there are different project deliveries that explore the different possibilities of project success, the question I have for you is which of these project deliveries in your opinion drives the most teamwork to be utilized? For myself, I believe it is through IPD or Integrated Project Delivery. This delivery method attempts to spread the risk, liabilities, and reward between all parties under the IPD contract. An example of this can be seen in the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital Expansion in St. Louis, Missouri. By using the IPD method and working together the team was able to save $400,000 for the overall project. It is my belief that this project delivery fosters the most teamwork out of necessity for the success of the project. If all parties do not work together innovation will be lost and a project will be delivered over budget and not on time.

      Overall, I believe that teamwork is one of the most imporant characteristics in a projects success. If the project team cannot work together there will be more difficulties throughout the project.

  17. benP
    August 28, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

    Most of the cases that we read about had one thing in common, they all related back to human error. To be blunt, people didn’t do their job correctly. In none of the cases would it be right to blame just one person. When something is majorly wrong on a jobsite, many people probably know about it. Many times, there is a major disconnect between the tradespeople performing the work, the engineers designing the project and the inspectors overseeing everyone. Simply put, the different groups of people on a jobsite don’t always get along. Because of this, there is a lack of communication. This lack of communication and teamwork can affect the overall quality of the project.
    Engineers, inspectors and construction managers should make many jobsite visits to make sure the project is carried out as planned. In highway construction, inspectors are usually on location whenever work is being performed. This greatly helps to ensure that the job is carried out as planned. It can cut down on tradespeople trying to cut corners. On many big projects, the inspection team will normally include a P.E. This is a great asset to all involved. I have been on projects where the inspection team (including a P.E.) has caught mistakes made by the design engineers.
    If the right inspector was present in San Antonio, they would not have allowed construction to go on until the grout was installed correctly. Or perhaps if the G.C. was made up of more competent and experienced trade’s people, they would have known to grout the joints as it is a standard procedure. In the supermarket collapse, it was determined that there was some engineering design flaws. Perhaps that project didn’t have an oversight engineer, or the town did not have an engineer review the prints. On the Baileys crossroad project, the inspector or engineer should not have allowed the G.C. to continue on until the right steps were completed. To sum it up, more eyes and more people checking each other’s work to help make us all look good is needed to make a project successful.

    • Megan F.
      August 31, 2017 at 6:05 pm #


      I agree with what you have written. Some errors in buildings are hard to catch especially for less experienced professionals. The more people to look at the design or the construction, the more chances there are to find the error and fix it prior to a building failure. I also think that this process can be time consuming if throughout a project’s lifetime people are continuously double/triple checking work to ensure it is safe. A good resource that many companies utilize is peer review. This is a great way for a fresh set of eyes to have a pass at the work being performed. Sometimes, people working on a project have been seeing the same drawings and details for years and it can be hard to notice something is no quite right. When a new person gets a chance to look at these things, they may be able to catch a mistake that otherwise would have been overlooked.

    • Perry H.
      September 3, 2017 at 9:16 pm #


      As you have stated almost all of the case studies we have read through have some kind of human error involved. I agree with you that the clear solution is to have some kind of oversight of the construction process, whether it be by inspection teams led by a P.E. or better trained and experienced trade’s people. Having more competent minds overseeing the construction process can only lead to better outcomes.

      Having said this the more inspections that are required or the more competent eyes on site the more time and money that needs to be dedicated to the project. This usually doesn’t go well with the person who is financially responsible. Unfortunately the construction world is all about making money and shortcuts will always be taken.

      In the case of the supermarket collapse that you mentioned, the author talks about the consequence of competitive bidding. This is a perfect example of how trying to make extra profit can compromise the integrity of the project.

      The only way to fix this problem and ensure that less shortcuts are taken is through a more strict code when it comes to the requirements of site inspection and supervision.

    • Shangmi X.
      September 5, 2017 at 8:02 am #

      I agree that most of the failure cases are related back to the human error. I think the people do make mistakes since our brains are not perfect. So we created computer program to help us do some of the calculation and checking to help people reduce the human mistakes. But then when it goes to the real construction situation, the inspecting work are back to human’s job. This always needed and an approval from the engineer is required for the construction to be continued after the inspection. It seems that the engineers who have signed the approval are responsible for the building and will takes the risk of the building failure. Actually, everyone in the project has responsibility to the building safety and should take the responsibility of the building’s whole life. Since there are so many people involves in a project. Different groups of people should all work together for the building not only theirselves. They should supervise each other’s work to reduce the risk of building failure.

  18. David K.
    August 28, 2017 at 6:35 pm #

    While building collapse failures are common in news coverage, a majority of building failures are not brought to light because of the lack of danger to human life. As described by the two articles, “Sleuthing out Building Failures” and “Sleuthing the Mundane and Catastrophic,” a majority of events we call “building failures” are small scale publicly but large scale in terms of cost to an owner, contractor, or designer. After reading the article titled “Sleuthing out Building Failures”, it is clear that the author wants the reader to realize that a majority of building failures are not catastrophic in nature. Many building failures are events or issues that have a low impact on human life and instead largely consist of “nagging, persistent problems,” as stated by Deborah Snoonian (author). However in the event of an emergency, Daniel A. Cuoco, P.E. of LZA Technology states that, the immediate concern is that the issue of public safety is resolved before any information or evidence is obtained from the failure or immanent failure of a building or component thereof.
    A few learning points of the article, “Sleuthing out Building Failures,” exist in the multiple case studies offered; the failures that exist in the case studies can be organized into categories suggested by Snoonian. In the case study Neglect of a fragile celling, the failure resulted mainly from contractor error. However, it could also be found that the issue arose from a lack of communication (“Failed communications”) between the architect and the contractor regarding the load rating of the celling (see article for full description of events). The case study Cladding for the Climate an example of “material performance problems” such that the materials chosen for the exterior cladding of the building failed due to the varying temperatures of the Chicago climate. This article also includes information on good designer practices that would have helped the designers / builders in these case studies to avoid such issues. The first suggestion made by the author of this article is that the designer should choose compatible materials for the environment. It seems as though many building failures that exist from improper usage and selection of building materials resulted from a lack of understanding and research of the given material. With that said, it should be known that the same issue / failure example could have been grouped into any of the other categories. Deciding which entity is at fault after a failure is not simple being that there could have been multiple ways to avoid the failure at different points during the design and construction.
    The second reference source “Sleuthing the Mundane and Catastrophic” confirmed the hypothesis made by the first reference article in that a majority of building “failures” are not catastrophic and result from small overlooked details by either the designer or builder. Fortunately, these overlooked details are usually part of less critical systems in terms of life safety. The second article provides more examples of façade and other building enclosure failures. During the previous summer, I was given the opportunity to quality assurance (QA) work for a Carlisle TPO roofing system. Contractors spend a great deal of money on third party inspectors, like the company I was working for, to help prevent contractor error on the installation of various components of a building enclosures system. This then, as described by both articles, are some of the most common examples of costly building failures. Many of which can be avoided with careful research on the design side and proper inspection on the side of construction processes and installations.

  19. Richard T.
    August 28, 2017 at 3:50 pm #

    I agree with the majority of those who have posted that the reason for these failures maybe not be caused by one thing but a multiple of different factors. However, these failures should be mitigated in the design phase where the cost is cheaper. One may ask how do you predict that these failures are going to happen? Well you can’t. But the majority of buildings are cost driven. Both designers and contractors want to appeal to the owner by making the cost of the work as cheap as possible. At first, this may save a little money and make the owner happy, but after a couple years the building will start falling apart due to water damage or poor construction. The fact of the matter is how do we convince the owner to put in the money upfront to save them from spending too much later?

    Something that is mentioned in the article are the causes for these type failures. Often it’s water that gets into tiny voids, gets trapped, and freezes. As the water freezes it expands the area forcing whatever that is in its way to fail. Obviously, this is an issue the happens a lot. Why do designers keep making the same mistakes? I agree with Professor Parfitt that there is a lack of institutional memory. Why is it that the new designers are not getting this information from the people who have done this type of work before? Is it too costly to ask an experienced person to double check the work of a novice? Or maybe it’s the lack of complex problem-solving. Some designers like to assume that if the deflections are controlled the façade will be perfectly fine. Although the failure may not be because of deflection, but may be another reason. Things like these are not accounted for by the mass majority of designers. Things are outside the scope of that person’s profession, so that person usually won’t worry about it.

    Some personal experience that I had this summer were at the job site that I visited. Most often the engineer of record visits the job site for the first pour. They review the work precariously and if all looks well assumes that the next several floors are going to be fine. They are not there to inspect the work. That’s the job of the inspector, but doing this adds several more layers of complexity and does affect the overall construction of the building. You have one person and then the next trying to figure out what the original design is when it’s very simple just to have the engineer of record review it themselves. Absolutely it’s going to cost more for them to do it, but there’s less confusion in the end and things are built correctly. Sometimes poor construction is not because of money saving, but the lack of communication. One can argue that these building failures do not affect the safety of the people that are inside. At worst, the building will look damaged and will aesthetically have to be fixed. In California, I believe that the engineer of record is responsible for inspecting all the work on the building. Due to the high occurrence of earthquakes this is a necessity. A failure may lead to the death of many people. Why can’t they hold that same accountability for all types of building failures? True, most failures do not kill people, but it’s not impossible for a piece of building to fall off and kill someone.

    • Geoffrey T.
      August 30, 2017 at 12:05 am #

      Hi Rich,

      I agree with you that when it comes to a construction project, the owner always wants the best quality out of a very limited budget. One way that we can do to convince the owner (may need extra work on our side) is to do a preliminary life-cycle costing and lay out the different options and consequences if we follow his/her orders. Most of the owners do not have any construction background, that is why it is our job to help them understand what is going on. Even though we should always help the owner to save money, there are certain parts where saving money can be detrimental to the project.

      I like how you mentioned that one of the main causes for building failure is lack of communication. From today’s lecture, we also learned that communication was one of the biggest factors in building failure. I might be too naive for saying this, but I think a lot of engineers only focus on the scope and contract of their work and nothing else. Maybe they do not want to be liable for things that are out of their scope of work (Ignorance is bliss sometimes). Thus, going forward, I think it is important for engineers to have the mindset where their objective is to build a functional and efficient building instead of just limiting themselves to a scope of work alone.

      • David K.
        September 4, 2017 at 7:23 pm #

        Richard / Geoffrey,

        The implementation of Quality Assurance (QA) work is one of the most cost effective ways for the owner to provide checks on the construction processes. Owners often hire 3rd party inspectors to ensure that both the general and sub contractors are building according to the engineers’/ architects’ details but also that the project is being built safely and to a higher overall quality.

  20. Geoffrey T.
    August 28, 2017 at 10:52 am #

    Prof. Parfitt mentioned in class that building failures were not limited to big catastrophic disasters that claimed lives. Anything that caused buildings to not perform as intended was also considered as a type of failure. For example, water intrusion into the building, sagging floors, bad insulation, falling facades, pest intrusion, poorly functioning HVAC systems were all considered as building failures.

    Based on the two references provided, “Sleuthing Out Building Failures” and “Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic”, most of the failures that occur in buildings involved building envelopes that ranged from water intrusion into the building like the one in 20th century warehouse to falling curtain wall in Midtown Manhattan office tower (Gonchar, Joann. “Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic”). Even though the failure highlighted in the articles mostly referred to contractor’s’ negligence, one must understand that contractors were not the only one at fault. When it came to building performance, all parties (engineers, architects, and contractors) played equal parts.

    I had the chance to work on couples of investigation projects this past summer. After reviewing the photos of the failure taken by my colleagues on site as well as the drawing details provided by the architects, I realized that even though some of the failures were caused by bad construction, some failures were caused by poor details (e.g: missing details, unclear specifications, etc). Thus, even though it was easy to put blame on contractors, one must also investigate the work quality of the design professionals involved in the project.

    There are couples of things that can be done to avoid these failures in the future. First is communication. Contractors need to communicate with the design professionals if they find construction difficulties on site, for example from the “Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic” , if the contractors found that applying intumescent paint to the underside of the tongue-and-groove decking was difficult to apply, the contractors need to inform the design professionals about the problem. Likewise, for design professionals, they need to have a good grasp on how things come together in the field. Design professionals that have good knowledge about construction will help to avoid any confusions on the field.

    • mkev
      August 28, 2017 at 3:06 pm #

      I will add that I have seen the lack of detail problem as well. Or often it is lack of detailed details. Many times the wall sections / details are cut at the most typical / least complicated places such as the field of the wall or facade. Rarely do you see a 3D detail at an inside corner where two different materials come together along with some geometry changes etc. Those are the ones that often get messed up in the field.

      • Geoffrey T.
        August 29, 2017 at 11:42 pm #

        Prof Parfitt,

        I completely agree. I remembered that during my internship, we always provide both 2D and 3D detail drawing. With these, the contractor would have a better understanding of the systems and how to construct them, especially in the complicated/hidden area.

    • Nick S.
      August 29, 2017 at 8:55 am #


      I agree with what you stated, too often construction documents are missing the appropriate details that contractors need to fully understand the design/intent of the building they are constructing. I know at the company I am working for, it is extremely common to hear from the experienced project mangers and superintendents their disappointment in the construction documents. An example of this actually just occurred yesterday (8/28) on the job I am working on. It is a two story higher education building this stacked restrooms on the first and second floor. However, the catch was the restrooms from the first to second floor had a slight difference in size between the two. This was discovered when the plumbing contractor and Benchmarks layout foreman began to layout the space. Every time they where to blow up the detail of the second floor restroom it kept taking them to the first floor detail. It was found that there was no detail for the second floor restroom and this caused a discrepancy in the sizing and spacing of the stalls. Luckily our team was able to discover/resolve this issue before any more problems could arise. This is just one example of how having the right details in your construction documents can help eliminate headaches in the future.

      Now to comment on the second part of your response, I also agree with your statement that having a design professional with a good understand/grasp of construction can make a world of difference for the entire construction team. When I say design professional I am mostly talking about architects. You can correct me if I am wrong, but it is my opinion that architects currently are losing the understanding of constructability. More and more architects are designing buildings that are fancy and complex but tend to forget how will this be built. An example of this is again from the job I am currently working on. The architect took the facade (sheathing and framing) and continued it below grade. This is a constructability concern due to the deteriorating away over time. Another example would be one of the interior windows is is above an entrance to a corridor. When looking at the room design as a whole it is are really nice, eye catching design, but when you look at the constructability of the window the question is how will it be supported? There is no support holding up the window, if it was build as per the drawings the window would only be supported by the two sides and header of the window. These examples are just several that come to mind when discussing the importance of design professionals with a strong grasp on construction.

      Overall, I agree with what you are saying. When the design professionals have a strong understanding of construction and are able to include details that depict complicated/complex areas of design greatly improves the overall quality of the product produced and reduce the number of headaches/problems that arise before, during, and after construction is completed.

      • Geoffrey T.
        August 29, 2017 at 11:48 pm #

        Thank you for your comment, Nick.

        Certainly. Even though not all architects are oblivious on construction, most of them focus more on the aesthetic of the building. Don’t get me wrong, as an architectural engineer graduating from Penn State, we are trained to appreciate both the aesthetic and technical aspect of architecture.

        By having the consultants early in the game (i.e: maybe during design development), a lot of these mistakes can be avoided, thus, saving client’s money in the long run.

  21. Nick S.
    August 27, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

    Based on class lectures, case studies, and relative readings the typical way of thinking that a building performance failure occurs due to a single cause is incorrect. It can be found that multiple factors lead to that final moment where something on/with the building fails and many of these factors go unnoticed. These failures can range from as serious as in loss of life to pieces of concrete falling off a building’s façade. However, each failure, no matter the severity, needs to be handled and corrected as to not happen again in the future. This is usually done through rules and regulations that make up a set of guidelines on how things are supposed to be done. This leads me to my one question, if all of these failures that occur are studied and guidelines are established so no failure is to occur again, then why do they keep happening?

    For me the answer to this question is because of the constant pressures that contractors are under to provide a quality product for less. This is no new phenomenon, more and more projects look for bids that come in low and still provide the same quality. This is no stranger for public entity projects like schools, infrastructure, and government buildings. These projects look for the contractor who is willing to provide the project for the least amount. From this contractors have to look for means that they can provide the same objective for less. This is where the issues lies because sometimes quality is sacrificed when costs are reduced. An example of this is from our class lecture where the contractor made a change to the expansion anchor used to hold up the ceiling. This change created a building failure due to the lack of understanding of the product being used. The difference between the two was the change had a modulus of elasticity that could not meet the criteria needed. This expansion anchor, because it is not good in tension, failed and could of caused serious injuries. Another area where cost cutting affects the product produced is in the quality of people who overseeing the project. An example of this can be found in the supermarket collapsed at Station Square in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. The article stated that the structural engineer for the Save-on-Foods store was selected through competitive bidding. This selection process created a dilemma that drove the fee levels so low that many people questioned the quality of the professional services that were provided. From the Commissioners Report it discusses how such a low fee made it challenging to perform the provided services to the degree of precision that is required (Closkey 1988, pp. 42,49).

    Overall, it can be seen that a buildings failure can be caused by a variety of factors from the quality of the product or individual used to the overall design of the product. From these instances is where codes, regulations, and guidelines are developed to reduce/mitigate these failures from occurring again. However, it is completely up to us, as architects, engineers, and contractors to never forget our duty to provide a product that is safe, reliable, and has the highest quality.

    • mkev
      August 27, 2017 at 8:23 pm #

      You make a number of good points, Nick. The pressure to do more with less can be a problem in both the design, construction and operation worlds. As we go on in the semester, I think you will see similar examples on technical issues as well. Why don’t we learn? You will hear me say several times that there is a lack of institutional memory. In other words, a lack of a way to take a lesson learned years before you were born and make sure the lesson stays fresh in the minds of those working in the AEC field today.

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