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

  1. Jackson H
    September 4, 2018 at 3:14 pm #

    If the solution were easy, it would have already been done. Correcting widespread process and communication errors is an extremely complicated task that requires increased cooperation across numerous industries. The concept is simple, but the implementation seems nearly impossible. It leaves me wondering whether or not it is even possible right now, considering our current industry practices and technology. I have no doubt that technology will be an integral part of reducing process and communication errors, but I am curious to see what form it will take. Whether it is in the form of smart tracking technology is of particular interest to me. I remember an engineering innovation project that was presented during study abroad in Beijing that proposed the use of fitbit devices to track the location and health of construction workers to warn the worker or their supervisor if they entered dangerous zones or were reaching dangerous levels of fatigue. It would be interesting to see if something like this could work with structural failures, but instead of a fitbit, we use gauges to measure the “health” of structural members. Even though it is an interesting idea, it still can fail through the human element which is the current issue. Someone is still required to be alerted by the system and they must decide to act or not act upon the warning so essentially the process can fail in the same way, there would just be more advanced alert systems.

  2. Steven B
    September 3, 2018 at 11:27 pm #

    When one speaks about process, they are speaking about the little things. Keep an eye on the little things such as not carrying the correct units through a calculation. It is understandable that the different profession in the construction industry have different ways to perform their quality control considering that each profession focus may be slightly different. Quality control is also a highly guarded secret for some firm as this is how they differentiate themselves from the competition. Yes, there is some basic standard quality control steps that everyone should be able to abide by as professional. However, having “design by”, “Checked by” along with a stamp or seal does not always seem to be sufficient. Perhaps its time review the minimum quality control requirement used in the industry.

  3. Jackson H
    August 30, 2018 at 12:31 am #

    Reading the responses from the others helped me to clarify and reaffirm my initial interpretation of the articles. Most engineers at first glance view building failures as catastrophic collapses, but upon closer inspection it is apparent that there are many types of building failures of various sizes, and that the most common and most expensive by sheer volume are the smaller and more common failures. Overall, building failures are most often caused by multiple compounding issues that in hindsight seem fairly obvious, but for some reason are overlooked during the construction process. Preventing these failures seems straightforward, but it is more complex than expected due to its relationship to the behavior of not just an individual, but an entire industry. Smithr expresses the culture of the construction industry well by pointing out the mantra “Push, Push, Push”. Working at the breakneck speeds demanded by an industry where time is money invites the possibility for shortcomings. As difficult as it may seem, in order to really get to the root of these miscommunication issues there needs to be a change in the culture of the industry. As rgstansza pointed out, I am curious as well to see how technology will play a role in solving some of these process related issues. With technology growing ever more interconnected I wonder how it will interact with human behavior patterns in the effort to track and mitigate these complex failures.

    • Jordan O
      August 30, 2018 at 4:35 pm #

      I think the fact that it is widely acknowledged that the most common and most expensive building by sheer volume only further enhances the need for a conversation about making commissioning a mandatory, code required part of every new project. It was noted in “Sleuthing out Building failures” that commissioning can be expensive, but there is no secret that it has the potential to save huge sums of money throughout the life of a project.

      Commissioning, the testing of building systems throughout the life of a project and ensuring that construction is progressing according to specified documents, will be a much needed redundancy in the construction process. Having someone well versed in the activity at hand or with the materials being used on site can eliminate many of the small errors that less informed construction workers may make or can be a source of information for someone with a question before they put something in place. A second eye going over wall or roofing assemblies can be key in ensuring a water tight envelope and could be the difference between a properly functioning building or a leaky one.

      I think steps definitely need to be taken to put this into place and it will be interesting to see how this advances going forward.

  4. Steven B
    August 29, 2018 at 8:50 pm #

    “Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic” article covered a variety of cases. There was the case study of a section of curtain wall that fell from an approximately 40-year-old building during a February 2003 snowstorm. There was also the case study of Mold in an almost 100-year-old building that had recently been renovated in the summer of 2000. Now both cases can be seen as low-consequence as no one was hurt and the damage to other infrastructure seem minimal. Although, if the curtain section had fallen during a busier period there may have been injuries. It is no coincidence that the failure occurred during an extreme weather event and that no one was there to get hurt because it was an extreme weather event. I noted that one incident occurred in summer 2001 and the other in winter 2003. In both cases, poor workmanship on the part of the contractors contributed to the failures. The article was written in October 2006 and there is no mention of the forensics firms or anyone associated with the recommended repairs going back in the following 3 or 5 years to inspect the workmanship of the repairs. Even in the forensic field there are improvements that can be made to the process.

  5. Steven B
    August 28, 2018 at 11:05 pm #

    In reading through the articles and the subsequent postings from the members of the class, it is clear that as Ryan L puts it “single cause failures are rare”. It occurred to me that the first in the series of failures is the failure of the process. However, I am not just talking about the faulty design or poor design management as mentioned in the “Sleuthing out building failures” article. I am referring to the process even before a single nail was driven or a single calculation was done. I am talking about the negotiation of timelines and budget. Again “Sleuthing out building failures” points out that Architects rarely inquire about the building’s performance after it is handed over to the owner. I do not think this is a result of a lack of interest on the part of the architect, but rather a situation dictated by the budget that was agreed to at the start of the project. I the negotiation, so call low-consequence building failures are seen just as that, low consequence, and hence does not need to be addressed by “expensive” architects and engineers. This way of thinking fails to realize that low-consequence building failures can be major headaches to the occupants on these structures. The development of mold at the Hale Koa Hotel Armed Forces Recreation Center may not have brought the building down but it must have been a major inconvenience for the families that use the center. Perhaps allocating dedicated funds to post construction review that includes documenting all issues that may have occurred since the end of construction should be considered.

  6. Smithr
    August 28, 2018 at 2:42 pm #

    Push, Push, Push.

    A common phrase that we use in the construction industry to describe the pace at which projects run. Every construction project is crazy and fast-paced but the industry needs to be able to step back from time to time and review what is really going on. Often times we are positively reinforced by our leaders based on the duration of turnaround with less emphasis on the quality of the work done. This trend applies at all levels of construction from Owners to Designers to Management to Craftsmen.

    In the article “Sleuthing Out Building Failures”, there is an focused emphasis on the Architect/Engineer to review completed work with building owners to see how well their project really turned out. We do this for a few months prior to and after turnover. However, after those few months have gone by (or likely even before that), we likely have another project lined up, moving, and screaming at us for Shop Drawings, Contracts, etc. How can culture in the design world be changed so that post-construction project analysis is supported and rewarded?

    • Eric I
      September 3, 2018 at 1:37 pm #

      Hey Smith,

      I think this is a huge problem with our industry and I’m not sure if there is a good answer. I’ve spent a summer in both the construction management and design office world and the environments are very different. For the general contractor, time is money and schedules are becoming more and more aggressive. With that, there is a fine line between finishing projects under budget/ahead of schedule and compromising the quality of work. The fast pace construction that is so common now puts added stress on the subs/designers and can lead to cutting corners and problems down the road. Closing out the project as fast as possible is great but what if those problems magnify into lawsuits, litigation or an endless punchlist log? Is anyone really better off now or would sacrificing some schedule to provide everything its due diligence end up being better for everyone?

      Flip to the design side of things and there is a very different picture. Design can be a slow and methodical process and it isn’t uncommon to have the GC breathing down your neck to get the documents out. Sometimes there isn’t enough time or budget to keep up with daily site activities either. When this happens, how can an engineer verify the design is properly implemented? I know that an engineer can be the superintendent’s worst enemy because the engineer can really halt or accelerate a schedule. I think that there are times when the industry needs to take a step back and really think about if faster/cheaper/easier is really the best option. With so many building failures stemming from process errors, we may need to just slow down sometimes.

    • Abby S
      September 3, 2018 at 4:49 pm #

      I completely agree that the desire for a quick turnaround on a project can often lead to reduced quality of work. In order to maintain high quality work throughout and after the project, I think it is important to put requirements into contracts beforehand. I think that these requirements should include architects and engineers visiting the site on regularly scheduled intervals. I also believe that projects with unique or unusually complex design features may call for an increased number of site visits and coordination meetings to ensure that these parts of the construction go as planned. This could also help prevent many problems from occurring and reduce the number of post-construction failures over time. In my opinion, post-construction project analysis becomes more difficult because the contractor passes responsibility to the owner and no longer feels responsible for how well the building functions. I think that post-occupancy checks should also be included in a contract between the owner and contractor to encourage this process and also reward the contractor with an extra payment. This would require more coordination and time from all parties involved, but it could potentially benefit everyone as well.

      This would probably be supported more if the designers and contractors did not feel that any negative findings in their post-construction project analysis could result in legal action. Because of this, I also feel that those conducting the analysis may be biased and not want to find any problems, so it could be better to have an outside consultant carry out post-construction analyses.

    • SamZ
      September 3, 2018 at 9:39 pm #

      I think that the culture could be changed not from the designer side but from the owner. This is something that an owner should include in a contract to ensure that after 6 months or a year or two years that the architect, engineers, and or contractors return and get a review from an owner representative like facilities manager of where they have issues. This would be especially applicable for an owner like Penn State where they have many projects and an educated facilities department. Having a review with the owner afterwards would educate the AEC professional about any issues which that experience could transfer to the next project and that the knowledge of the definitive review would encourage all to preform better the design and construction as to avoid issues later. There are adverse affects to this, I imagine that designers and builders would add cost to the project to account for this meeting for the time and in case an issue does arise that they would definitely have to foot the bill for opposed to the owner. This would increase the overall project cost up front for the owner which is not ideal.

  7. Eric I
    August 28, 2018 at 1:58 pm #

    The two articles that we were instructed to read, “Sleuthing Out Building Failures” and “Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic,” each presented numerous case studies that detailed a number of failures. While the magnitude and scope of the failures varies quite a bit, there are a lot of similarities between the underlying causes and a lot to be learned from each one.

    In the first article, the authors immediately address that the term “failure” is often connected to the worst-case scenario but the definition is much broader and far encompassing. The actual meaning of a failure is any system or component that is not performing as intended. This includes but is not limited to smaller things such as roofing issues, water infiltration and excessive deflections. The most interesting thing I found in the article is that building owners who pay the maintenance bills have the most knowledge about how building products perform. The current trends show that small-scale occurrences are often handled by maintenance staff or by other internal means. Combine that with the fact that architects/engineers seldom visit old projects after close-out and the industry has a massive communication issue and information gap. How are architects/engineers supposed to learn from past mistakes and become better designers if they are never informed of the “small” things that go wrong? Now what of this compounds to bigger issues such as structural or building facade performance? There has to be a better way of learning and information sharing other than through litigation. Continuing into this article, the most interesting case study to me was the Standard Oil Company’s headquarters. The 80 story building was clad with white carrara marble that was experiencing premature cracking due to thermal cycling. The industry is now more aware that thermal expansion/contraction is a load in itself but most of us learn this post-graduation. Curtain walls are becoming ever-more complex now so we as designers need to be careful in selecting compatible materials and providing the right amount of room for movement in the places where it can be afforded. This was an extreme case that was highly visible and had massive economic consequences but there are nearly infinite places in a building where this can occur as well.

    In the second article, a variety of failures were presented that included both process and design errors. The first case study was a Manhattan office tower where a section of curtain wall fell off the building. When the investigation was taking place, it eventually escalated to verifying every single mullion bracket and spandrel beam clip. This task may seem mundane but to ensure public safety, it was necessary. At the actual failure location, 3 spandrel clips were omitted due to an atypical condition. As a designer, one must be extra cautious to detail every single condition so that a correct install is possible. In the warehouse study, water penetration and mold growth was wide spread due to issues that dated back to construction. The season was unusually wet and insufficient drying time allowed for wet materials to be encapsulated. This falls under the process error group where the contractor may not have known any better but design engineers should be aware of adverse conditions on site so plans can be implemented to address these conditions. The final example was an early skyscraper not having expansion joints. This particular building was completed before the idea of expansion joints but I think it proves that the industry has learned from the past on this topic.

    In the end, these articles prove that building failures come in all shapes and sizes. While the industry has progressed on a lot of fronts, there seems to be a communication gap between the designers and occupants that are experiencing the problems.

    August 28, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

    Building failures range from the smallest water or moisture leak to the most catastrophic structural failure imaginable. The four articles we were tasked with reading were all similarly broad on this definition in an effort to showcase the range of possible issues that can be seen in a building.

    There is rarely one sole cause to the structural failure of a building. As seen in the case studies presented in these articles, it is often a build up of smaller, individually manageable failures or mistakes in the design or execution that compound on each other. For example, a designer could make a mistake in the loading that would be seen leading to an undersized member. This alone could be enough to fail the members and surrounding components, but if you add on mistakes in the execution of construction such as a missed connection or not ensuring a timber member the proper time to dry in a rainy construction season (as seen in “Sleuthing the Mundane and Catastrophic”), the issues could compound into a much more catastrophic failure.

    Once this failure occurs, owners often bring in building forensics specialists to figure out the root cause of the failure. This is usually to assess blame for legal proceedings but it is also beneficial for the entire building industry because every mistake is an opportunity to make future buildings better. The forensic process, depending on the specific failure, can consist of taking core samples of existing walls, monitoring cracks, videotaping any changes in the damage during the investigative process, and mapping out the location of the damage.

    At the end of the day, it is important to have this information well documented to educate owners, designers, and people throughout the industry on the risks of new technologies and building materials, being realistic about budgetary constraints and assessing material lifespan, and creating a chain of custody from start to finish on a project. Commissioning – testing of building systems throughout the life of a project and ensuring that construction is progressing according to specified documents – is an expensive but vital aspect in new and existing construction. It can potentially save money on future costs that are unknown and difficult to estimate by diagnosing problems early on and fixing them as soon as possible and is quickly becoming a mandatory part of new construction (“Sleuthing out Building Failures”).

    • Eric I
      August 30, 2018 at 4:50 pm #


      I think you brought up some very interesting points in your post. You mentioned how small failures can have have compounding effects and I think these articles show how this is undeniably true. One thing in particular that you mentioned was the under-sizing of a member. While I’m sure that most of our brains jump to total collapse, that is the less common result. The more common issue is the excessive deflections associated with undersized members. Once beams start to deflect more than anticipated, a variety of issues can occur such as slab cracking, straining of the facade and even issues with the finishes. In my experience, most building components are rated for a certain amount of movement and once whatever it is connected to exceeds that value, it can cause severe warping or damage through unforeseen loading. Another problem associated with slab deflections in particular is the difficulties for the dry-waller. If they are not given a flat surface to work with, it is much harder to properly align all of the partitions and that now affects productivity and schedule. While this particular item can be manageable, it ultimately has compounding economic consequences.

      The other point you brought up was just how painstakingly involved the investigation process can become. The amount of research, documentation and information sharing that can be involved with investigative work adds up quickly. While it is a beneficial learning tool for everyone, the expense and time commitment can be huge for those directly involved. As information is more readily available now, the industry needs to be more aware and learn from the past. We may even be able to get to the point where if we know items a,b and c went wrong, we can predict that x,y and z are be coming next. This would allow us to take a proactive approach and address issues prior to them magnifying into a larger scale.

      • Jordan O
        September 3, 2018 at 11:45 pm #


        Your last point brings up the large costs from the often lengthy and difficult investigation process involved in many larger scale building failures. I think this is a good opportunity to reinforce the idea of constant commissioning throughout the life cycle of a building.

        Commissioning, although having a large cost in itself, can solve many of the problems you noted the investigation process having. With all building systems being properly maintained and inspected throughout a buildings life, small issues that could potentially compound on themselves could be noted and dealt with early on. Not only could this prevent possible future large scale failures, but it could reduce the cost of a fix by finding problems before they get out of hand. It would also provide the building owner with a means to constantly document building information, potentially reducing the amount of research and documentation work by an investigator in the event of a failure. This information could be easily shared with engineers in the respective areas of the building systems who could make the decision to take action on a deficiency or approve it to be left alone. At the end of the day, I believe that the commissioning process will ultimately save an owner money not only by helping to prevent failures, but by providing a constant feed of information about the building that can help the owner make cost efficient decisions.

  9. rgstanza
    August 28, 2018 at 1:23 pm #

    Throughout these sleuthing reads I found it a little unsettling how small issues during construction such as not protecting materials or a having a field change can be. The issues seem quite obvious given their circumstances, so it makes me wonder how they were neglected.

    For instance, I suspect that the region where the building that had mold growth and deterioration is no stranger to rain, given that it was raining 89 out of the 210 days of construction. I would think that the mindset of ensuring there are proper methods to keep moisture out during the construction process would be more prevalent.

    Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and I’m sure the contractor did his diligence on a multitude of other issues, so that is not to say they were inexperienced or lazy. I wonder how technology today can be implemented to bring attention to and combat these seemingly inconsequential details so that they don’t accidentally slip under the radar.

    • Clayton T
      August 29, 2018 at 5:01 pm #

      While technological advancements in the construction world seem to be constantly developing, I fear that nothing of the sort will be able to be applied to these common errors. However, I believe this may be more easily fixed by players within the construction industry reviewing and in some cases revising their quality control procedures. Whether that may be within a design office or an official inspection on site, the material to be reviewed needs to be clear and while inspecting each component of an assembly may be time intensive it could save excess money and time down the road. The clarity of installation and the parameters of which some material must be stored and placed could also prove crucial to overall construction.

    • Josiah M
      August 30, 2018 at 8:23 am #

      I think it will be interesting to see how technological advancements will benefit the industry when it comes to preventing these, normally, overseen issues. But at the same token, I wonder how it may contribute to some issues as well. If I use software as an example, you will note that it is heavily dependent on the user input. Therefore, what is output will reflect the input. It’s possible that the input can be applied hastily and some mistakes can be made, and/or some critical details may be overlooked leading to issues later on down the line. At the end of the day it still leads back to a failure of processes where someone has overlooked a detail, leading to problems in the future.

      • Ryan L
        September 3, 2018 at 11:59 am #

        Clayco has a pretty good process in place at the East Halls renovation. They are are strategically utilizing BIM (3D coordination; existing conditions; etc) along with traditional on site inspection and oversight. Additionally they seem to have a lot of buy-in from all stakeholders during their design and construction reviews.

        It will be interesting to see how metrics play outing the future, like you point out. What oversights will be made as a result of more technological advances? How does design-build vs DBB play into it.

        Fortunately/(maybe unfortunately) these same advances should also assist in forensic analysis of failures in the future.

      • rgstanza
        September 3, 2018 at 1:06 pm #

        That’s a really good point. If we depend on a new type of software that is developed to do some of the checks for us, then someone who is inexperienced may be blindly following the results of faulty input. This could lead to even more small issues being overlooked and leading to disastrous results – garbage in, garbage out.

        I guess nothing can really replace having a thorough understanding of all the components that go into a building and knowing how they are interwoven so that you know where to start looking for problems.

  10. Katie W.
    August 28, 2018 at 8:08 am #

    For these readings, a common issue I noticed was underlying issues over time compounded by existing engineering or construction problems. This stresses the importance of upkeep on the building and to consider commissioning to ensure the building is functioning as it should. It is very easy to get into the mindset of if it isn’t falling down, it’s working. Factors of safety can only protect the building for so long if there is corrosion like in the parking deck or fatigue due to unconsidered loading like the curtain wall failure at the Manhattan office. It almost always isn’t just a singular issue but multiple issues acting together. If we could remove even one of the issues causing the failure, would the building still have failed? My question is, do you think there should be some kind of code requirement about commissioning and do you think it would actually help reduce the number of building failures?

    • Ryan L
      August 29, 2018 at 4:54 pm #

      I think expansion of legislative or regulatory requirements after BOD are a method to address the concerns you noted. ie the facade inspection requirements in certain municipalities. I think the issue becomes one of economic feasibility. As Long as public safety remains the primary goal, certain circumstances probably should require commissioning and inspection during the lifecycle of the building. However overreach could become a huge cost if facilities became over regulated.

      • Katie W.
        August 30, 2018 at 8:17 am #

        I agree. It could definitely have an effect of the number of failures, but is it possible to even regulate such a thing? At what point would we want to check the building for problems? After the anticipated lifespan of the building or right before opening, perhaps. Though I’m sure there are already final building inspections in place. There are a lot of issues that go along with adding regular inspections after the building is constructed and there’s probably reasons commissioning codes aren’t in place.

    • Abby S
      August 29, 2018 at 8:27 pm #


      I think you make some great points about the importance of upkeep and how the failure of certain aspects, especially when in combination with each other, over time can result in a failure. The Sleuthing Out Building Failures article states that commissioning can be very beneficial yet also quite expensive. While I do believe that commissioning can lead to the discovery of potential issues and possibly prevent a building failure, I think that it would be difficult to require all projects to carry out building commissioning to a level that would discover all potential issues.

      Looking into this subject further, I found that the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) actually has provisions for system commissioning; however, it seems to me that many of the requirements are vague. For example, Chapter 4 states that “HVAC systems shall be balanced in accordance with generally accepted engineering standards.” I think that this can cause problems because some people may have different opinions on what is considered to be generally accepted. The article states that the goal of commissioning is to ensure that peak performance, not generally accepted performance, is reached. Who is to say what the difference is, though? I think the fact that commissioning standards may be open to some interpretation brings about issues with creating code requirements.

      Overall, I think that commissioning would help reduce the number of building failures because it would help owners and designers catch issues early in the building’s lifetime and help everyone involved learn what mistakes were made and how to avoid them in future projects; however, I also think that code requirements involving commissioning can be problematic due to cost, unusual project types, and different levels of accepted and desired performance. For projects that have used commissioning, how was (or could) it be ensured that the systems were performing at a standard that will not result in a failure over time, especially when the process occurs at the very beginning of its use when it should be at maximum performance?

      • Sierra S
        September 5, 2018 at 10:44 pm #


        Correct me if I am wrong, but from my experience a lot of commissioning projects occur prior to handing the project over to the owner. This is to ensure that the systems installed are to the acceptable standards set out by the owner. If this timeline was used then issues, such as corrosion and fatigue that Katy mentioned earlier, would not be found since that is a issue of time. While this is how I currently see commissioning there is nothing to say the systems can’t be rechecked later down the line.

        As mentioned in the Sleuthing Out Building Failures article, commissioning is very expensive. I don’t think creating a code that mandates the system be checked every so often would be beneficial to the owner. However, an inspection of the building could be required after the occurrence of certain events. For example, through historical data we can predict the expected life of many types of materials and machinery. Right before that life expectancy is up the system should be checked. Another situation could be after a significant storm or natural disaster. By knowing the circumstances that can harm a building we can take precautions.

    • Samz
      August 29, 2018 at 9:58 pm #

      I do believe that a code requirement for commissioning would reduce some failures but more likely than not it would be in other disciplines in the AEC industry. So it may allow the mechanical engineer or the lighting designer to tune or alter their systems to preform better and it would definitely be beneficial for the owner and designers. In the case of structural failures however, many of the failures such as water infiltration may only happen in certain season and it would not be practical to do commissioning for a few months or even a year to cover all the bases.

  11. Jackson H
    August 28, 2018 at 12:01 am #

    Across all four articles, the central takeaway that I got was that the vast majority of building failures are not catastrophic or newsworthy, but these common failures are often the most helpful to us as “lessons learned” that we can use to improve the way we design buildings. Most of these failures are caused by multiple factors across multiple stages of the design and construction process. Over the years, many different causes for failure have been identified and there have been periodic changes in industry standards and building codes to help mitigate the larger and more catastrophic failures, but the less noteworthy failures are destined to repeat themselves until the industry makes a conscious effort to increase communication across all parties involved and recognize potential vulnerabilities in performance from start to finish of the building process.

    All parties involved in the design and construction of a building can benefit from studying failures. Failures cost everyone time and money on one way or another. As pointed out in the “Sleuthing out Building Failures” article, small failures with finishes and maintenance can make for an unhappy owner, and an unsuspecting designer can lose future business due to small issues that would never come up in court. Tracking and making changes based off of these small failures can have real impacts on a firm’s livelihood.

  12. Josiah M
    August 27, 2018 at 9:50 pm #

    It seems that this article is reinforcing an idea that has been mentioned in class, that idea being that failures can largely be attributed to process failures. Each article covers examples of miscommunication, improper design, and plain oversight, just to name a few.

    In the article “Sleuthing out building failures” one of the first mentions of a process failure is when the author points out how common building failures are, they may be small, but they happen more often than most are lead to believe. The issue, however, is that these failures often go unreported because they can usually be fixed by maintenance, and these issues hardly ever get reported to the architects. As a result, the architects continually make these mistakes. The article goes on to make more specific examples, but it boils down to what I previously mentioned as a failure of processes. Things that could be easily prevented by a proper warning, although it may be obvious, or looking further into the design to make sure the systems implemented work together or even work independently.

    In the article “Sleuthing the Mundane and the Catastrophic” the failures can, similarly, be linked to the same cause of a failure of processes. An example mentioned is the failure of a portion of curtain wall in New York. The failure resulted from the fact the the curtain wall wasn’t designed to properly resist wind loads and the hardware used wasn’t adequate either, regular inspections could have caught this issue. Another case that is referenced is a building that had mold problems that resulted from the construction of the building. While the roof was being built, the weather was reported to be wet for a large percentage of the days that it took to complete. Materials were not given proper time to dry before they were waterproofed, so when the waterproofing was applied it locked the moisture in and eventually caused mold issues.

    Some lessons that can be learned from this article are that it is quite easy to overlook even the most simple/obvious aspects, you should always be very clear and concise in your documents to prevent any foreseeable issues. Additionally it is clear that routine inspections during both construction and operation of the building are necessary to ensure that systems have been installed properly and continue to perform as expected.

  13. Clayton T
    August 27, 2018 at 9:28 pm #

    While building failures can be defined in a variety of ways, ranging from catastrophic failure to an individual building connection each can have detrimental effects on the overall performance. As shown through the the roof assembly of a warehouse, the performance of the building was compromised requiring multiple investigative attempts to find the source of water infiltration into the building due to a simple construction error that seemed as more of a inconvenience than anything at first. However, this small error could have lead to multiple other failures if not dealt with when found. This is just one example that a single failure can be a mechanism triggering successive failures.

    • Katie W.
      September 4, 2018 at 8:31 am #

      While I agree with what you say, I think it is much more rare that a building will fail from a single error. In most of the cases discussed in the articles, there were multiple issues with the building/process/construction. What I’m trying to say, is that it’s also important to consider that there were underlying problems before the trigger mechanism caused the failure. Without them, the building might not have failed.

  14. SamZ
    August 27, 2018 at 8:45 pm #

    I found it interesting that many of the routine failures come from the contractor or designer not fully understanding the bigger picture on how the element they are building or designing interacts with the rest of the building. For example the one article talked about the truss that did not have the bracing at the marked location, a project superintendent knowledgeable of how lateral bracing effects the structure would know that all the marked bracing were required but one who doesn’t fully know would over look that to potential get back time on the schedule. And in the case of the hotel in Honolulu the moisture problem was a result of the undersized HVAC and improper location vapor barrier, this potentially not something a designer with more knowledge across disciplines would have done. I believe that with more AEC professionals that understand other disciplines the less likely these routine issues will occur.

    • Sierra S
      August 28, 2018 at 4:59 pm #

      I completely agree with what you are saying. The implementation of highly integrated team could drastically decrease the amount of failures if the team communicates properly. It can not be assumed that any one person knows the details of each system. The Engineer of Record should provide detailed notes and pay close attention to changes made either on site or through RFI’s. I believe that the on site involvement of the designers should increase. This is because they know the details of their design and what to look for. This precaution could increase the chances that an error is found.

      In the Hyatt Regency Collapse it is unclear if the design change went through the proper channels for approval. However, due to this communication breakdown a critical failure occurred. If the change didn’t make it to the engineer through an RFI then site visits could have been another way to catch the mistake.

  15. Abby S
    August 27, 2018 at 7:25 pm #

    The article entitled “Sleuthing out Building Failures” stresses the importance of architects gaining an understanding of performance failures in order to protect the building’s occupants. The article mentions commissioning, which is usually very expensive, as one potential solution to protecting the occupants’ well-being. Another solution includes discussing building performance with the building owner on past projects so they can learn from any mistakes that were made. This seems like a very simple task that can be very beneficial, yet the article states that architects rarely consult the owners after the building is complete. It appears that architects do not often take the time to consider how to improve upon smaller issues and instead focus on larger, more obvious issues, even though the low-consequence failures are far more common. This is surprising to me, considering that these seemingly minor failures often play a role in major failures. It seems that both pre- and post-occupancy checks are extremely beneficial to learning from performance failures. What could be some other possible reasons that these are not carried out as often as they should be?

    • rgstanza
      August 28, 2018 at 12:34 pm #

      I definitely agree that architects should take the time to communicate with the owners on past projects to learn how they might improve newer work. I think one reason that this issue is not addressed is due to the demanding nature of the industry. When architects/engineers are already working 50-60 hour work weeks, and are being pressed to meet deadlines, the priority that reflection and improvement takes is very low (unless the issue is painfully obvious).

      I hope that maybe more companies in the future will take the time to invest in a new mentality where time is allocated to designers to have these types of conversations with owners. This way there is incentive to actively search for the less obvious issues associated with a building’s design and can therefore be addressed and improved upon. This might cost the design firm more money up front but could potentially save a fortune down the line, in addition to allowing for better overall design.

  16. Sierra S
    August 27, 2018 at 2:15 pm #

    The case study, Sleuthing the Mundane and Catastrophic, talked about a specific case study where a section of curtain wall fell off of the side of a building. On the building where this occurred the curtain wall system was an older system, before curtain walls became refined. During the installation process of this curtain wall made bolts were missing and since a locking device wasn’t implemented many fasteners fell out over time.

    Today, our curtain wall assemblies have been in construction for about 40 years. Over this time the trades have became familiar with the system and hopefully enforce strict supervision of the installation and connections. New products in the building industry take time for the trades to become accustom to. Due to this, all parties involved on the implementation of a new system should take precaution in design, installation and maintenance.

  17. Sierra S
    August 27, 2018 at 1:59 pm #

    The main cause of incorrect assemblies is due to a miscommunication or overlook during the construction process. Regulations have been put in place to help reduce the amount of errors but that doesn’t necessary change the awareness of the workers in the building industry. A potential solution is mandated training. OSHA requires a certain amount of training which allows industry workers to be aware of hazards on site and work specialized equipment. If training was implemented for common failure modes and techniques to remain aware then this could help reduce overlooks.

    Another regulation that can be implemented is mandatory system/building overviews. These checkups can help prevent a failure before it occurs or before it becomes a significant hazard. A difficulty in installing this regulation is the cost it would require from the owner.

  18. Ryan L
    August 27, 2018 at 10:45 am #

    The case study analysis in both Sleuthing out Building Failures and Sleuthing the Mundane and Catastrophic continue to highlight the themes presented the first week in class: * single cause failures are rare * Procedural and communication deficiencies are often responsible for the conditions leading to failure * Lessons learned are the best way to prevent failures similar in nature moving forward.

    As the focus of these case studies does highlight water intrusion and thermal affects on building materials (along with loading factors, environmental considerations, etc.) the communication deficiencies in the Temple B’Nai Jeshurun in NYC and the 20th century wharehouse examples highlight the debate between proper and over communication while reaching the most important goal of protecting the public. The author points out that the contractor in the B’Nai Jeshurun was deemed at fault for using the ceiling suspension for a working platform, however the Architect should have noted this in the design documents even though it SEEMS OBVIOUS. Would integrated design/construction processes prevent this type of failure?

    The warehouse contractor owned up to a failure to recognize wet conditions and proper sealing of roof components, however this case study also poses the question of whether a more integrated design/construction team, particularly construction management and oversight, would have prevented the contractor from failing to follow procedure and understand the environmental impacts during construction activities.

    My take is that more integrated facility lifecycle processes (Planning through Demolition) will 1) improve communication and oversight during each phase of the bldg lifecycle 2) allow for all stakeholders to have access to performance of their portion of the process to enhance lesson learned data. 3) ultimately reduce failures from small building systems to catastrophic structural failure.

    • Smithr
      August 28, 2018 at 2:52 pm #

      In the case of the ceiling collapse in the Temple B’Nai Jeshurun, I don’t think that the architect should be held accountable for noting the design documents regarding the use of the ceiling suspension. This is a means and methods of reconstruction that should be discussed prior to work beginning (Pre-con Meeting) with the GC and subcontractor.

      However, the architect is not completely off the hook. Had the process been executed properly and the work had been discussed before it happened, it is likely that there would have been a question of access to this area. At that point, it would be the responsibility of the GC to ask the A/E if their method of access would be supported. It does seem to be a case of process failure.

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