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

  1. mkev
    August 30, 2016 at 10:17 pm #

    Would you all believe me if I told you the following is all it says in OHSA requirements for Precast Construction???


    Precast concrete wall units, structural framing, and tilt-up wall panels shall be adequately supported to prevent overturning and to prevent collapse until permanent connections are completed.


    Lifting inserts which are embedded or otherwise attached to tilt-up precast concrete members shall be capable of supporting at least two times the maximum intended load applied or transmitted to them.


    Lifting inserts which are embedded or otherwise attached to precast concrete members, other than the tilt-up members, shall be capable of supporting at least four times the maximum intended load applied or transmitted to them.


    Lifting hardware shall be capable of supporting at least five times the maximum intended load applied transmitted to the lifting hardware.


    No employee shall be permitted under precast concrete members being lifted or tilted into position except those employees required for the erection of those members.

    [FR 41088, Oct. 5, 1989]

    Ask Bill Moyer of Davis about it when he comes to class!

  2. mkev
    August 30, 2016 at 10:08 pm #

    Did anyone actually look up what the requirement was for removal of the shoring and going to reshoring? Do we still do it that way today? Are various specifications used to determine removal of shoring? Dig deeper everyone!

    • philr
      August 30, 2016 at 11:16 pm #

      ACI 347 gives good info when it comes to shoring, especially section in the 2014 edition.

  3. philr
    August 29, 2016 at 10:27 pm #

    Found the analysis to answer my previous question. here is the original full report for the Skyline Plaza Collapse.


  4. Alec B
    August 29, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

    As we learned from the reference articles, case studies, and lecture notes, a building performance failure is not often a single cause but rather rather several factors which negatively affect the performance of the building. Many of these factors have a direct impact on other factors until ultimately one factor is “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Despite the advancements the building industry has made in the past several decades, mistakes still occur and go undetected in the design and/or construction of buildings. When failures happen, the integrity of the building is compromised and oftentimes the entire building’s design and construction are open to a thorough investigation. Such investigations may lead to the discovery of additional, non-contributing errors in the design and/or construction which only further dismantles the integrity of the building, the contractors, and the design professionals. Take, for instance, the collapse of Skyline Plaza: the main factor which led to the collapse was the actual strength of the concrete slab of a particular floor not meeting the design strength of the slab at the time of the collapse. In the investigation of the collapse, numerous OSHA infractions were also discovered that were not believed to have directly impacted the building failure. However, the infractions were still indicative of how the construction of Skyline Plaza was performed and managed which may be considered to have indirectly affected the building failure. A building failure has the ability to expose a multitude of problems with the design/construction of a building that may have forever gone undetected if not for the building failure in the first place.

    Assuming a building failure is not completely destructive, there is an interesting dilemma that is introduced when attempting to find the right balance between the cost of the solution and the effectiveness of the solution. According to some of the case studies and building failures examples, it seems there is a tendency for owners/contractors to select the cheaper solution which may end up being a bigger problem in the long-run with even more cost associated with the future problem(s). Granted, some owners/contractors seem to select the most effective solution despite its impact on cost. It must have been extremely difficult for the owner/contractor to replace all marble panels of the Amoco Tower (which equated to a cost of replacement of about one-half the original cost of the total structure). However, the problem was correctly solved and there were no more ongoing worries about the performance of the building’s cladding.

    During my summer internship, I performed a few site surveys at parking garages in need of rehabilitation work. The one pre-cast concrete parking garage was surveyed over a decade ago by the company I worked for during the summer. My company drew-up the repair drawings for the owner/contractor, but ultimately the owner deemed the repairs too costly. Instead, the owner paid thousands of dollars nearly every year to temporarily fix the damaged areas of the parking garage. After years and years of temporary fixes, the owner re-contacted my company to perform a new site survey and draw up new repair documents. Though the owner is finally repairing the garage as it should have been repaired in the first place, the owner wasted tens of thousands of dollars on temporary repairs that need further repair anyhow – not to mention many potential customers were likely driven away over the years by a parking garage that appeared unsafe. I understand it must be difficult for an owner/contractor to weigh out the cost and effectiveness of a solution, but perhaps the longevity and sustainability of a building should be prioritized higher than it is for most owners/contractors/design professionals.

    If owners, contractors, architects, and design professionals begin thinking of the building’s outcome of design/construction rather than focusing on the building’s output of design/construction, perhaps some building failures may be prevented. Sure, some errors are more difficult to prevent than others – but the majority of building failures may be easily prevented with careful thinking and learning from the mistakes of others.

  5. ErikS
    August 29, 2016 at 5:54 pm #

    While not as glamorous as true “forensic investigations”, building assessments coupled with regular maintenance are critically important to maintaining a safe, efficient, durable building. Owners do not always recognize the impending failures they have on their hands when they observe a “simple” water leak around a window or masonry cracks within their facade. These signs are often telltales of deeper hidden problems developing. For example uncontrolled water penetration within the walls can lead to corrosion of structural elements that could cause gypsum wall board (drywall) to crack, walls to buckle, masonry units to crack or fall, or structural members to have section loss great enough to weaken the structure, facade, or roof.
    Corrosion of a steel support member, such as the lintel supporting the brick header at the Williamsburgh Saving Bank in Brooklyn, New York, can lead to catastrophic injuries or worse if the “cracked and broken” brick units had not been observed and removed. The building assessment work performed identified this deficiency and remedied it before further damage could occur.
    Similarly with the marble cladding at the former Amoco Building in Chicago, IL, a building assessment discovered the cracking marble, which eventually led to an expensive full-scale facade replacement but no one was injured or killed and no damage to property occurred due to failure of a panel due to early discover of the issues.
    Building assessments cost the Owners money; however, as PhilR alluded to in his post and Kevin has stated numerous times during the first two classes, the $1, $10, $100 rule is accurate. Finding and remediating the failure early on will have savings magnitudes greater than repairs later when the failures are more extensive or subsequent repairs are required.
    The facade ordinances are extremely important in big cities as these buildings are generally tall and difficult to access and owners would rather say they do not have issues and do not want to pay someone to tell them the same; however, time and time again you will read about building facades that have been standing for quite some time quietly deteriorating until a tragic failure occurs.
    Owner education as to the importance of properly maintaining their buildings and facilities is paramount.

    • mkev
      August 29, 2016 at 10:16 pm #

      Excellent points Erik. Statistics are hard to come by as you know but I don’t think there is any question that in the big picture, facade damage, maintenance and repair costs far exceed that of full or partial collapses.

      And for those who think the Amoco building was a one off problem, see this article on the failures wiki for several more examples of thin stone facade problems.


  6. philr
    August 26, 2016 at 4:40 pm #

    Two points:

    When I was on the board of my high-rise condo homeowners association, we had a difficult time convincing the owners (and renters) that the top level of the three year old (and in almost-new condition) underground parking garage had to be vacated for three weeks so a slab membrane could be put down, not to mention the $200K price tag. We stated that this project would prevent what could be several months of repairs in 15 years, and prevent what happened in this article. The board approved the project over the voices of a few non-resident “investor” owners.

    It was apparent that the opposing “investor” owners did not expect to own the property in 15 years, and did not want to contribute to something they would not necessarily see a benefit from (even though the money for the work was already in the building’s budget and a special assessment was not needed.) Fortunately, the HOA board consisted of long term owner / occupants who planned to be there for a while, plus a investor who happened to be a registered Structural Engineer (not me).

    So my first point is here that a lot can be learned about how a building has been maintained by evaluating who has owned it. Is it the long time headquarters for a high visibility professional corporation? The there is a better chance it has been pretty well taken care of. Or has the building been a market-timed real estate flip for a series of investment groups? If that is the case, then the a bit more digging into the real condition of the building is likely prudent.

    Which leads me to a second point. I would be curious to know if the owner of the parking garage in the example was the original owner. Maintenance records and blueprints do not HAVE to be conveyed when buildings are sold. The original owner may have taken meticulous care of his prize building, but that care may have disappeared with the next owner, along with many of the blueprints and maintenance notes, leaving the next owner (or investor) to start over with much less to work from.

    • mkev
      September 7, 2016 at 9:08 pm #

      I am pretty sure I know the garage you are talking about. I looked at it “unofficially” after the Peppermill garage collapse. Perhaps it eventually couldn’t meet the requirements of the Centre Region Property Maintenance Code. The section on parking garage inspections was passed after the Peppermill failed. So, this is perhaps a successful result of a code change from a failure that has built some institutional memory into our system. See below for wording:

      302.10 Elevated parking structures. Elevated
      parking structures shall be inspected on a regular
      basis, not to exceed 7 years, by a registered design
      professional in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
      contracted by the owner and at the owner’s expense,
      to verify the ability of the structure to adequately
      support the appropriate loads as defined by the
      building code. A letter stating the suitability of the
      structure to adequately resist the code-defined loads
      shall be kept on file at the code office.

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