Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 19, 2021.

Condo Conundrum 

The collapse of a Florida apartment building highlights the risks that can accompany condominium ownership, including conflicts that can delay or prevent building maintenance and repairs. Altering that dynamic is much easier said than done.


Early on the morning of June 24, a 12-story condominium in the Miami suburb of Surfside partially collapsed, killing more than 95 people, mostly residents of the tower who were asleep at the time. It was one of the deadliest non-deliberate building collapses in the nation’s history. Investigators say it could take years to determine what caused the 40-year-old building to fall.

RELATED: Read an interview with former Miami-Dade fire chief Dave Downey about the search and rescue efforts of responders at the scene of the Surfside collapse

Even so, public-safety experts say the incident already offers valuable lessons about the importance of building inspections and code compliance. In particular, experts say, it highlights the public’s lack of understanding of the critical role these safeguards play in our society. But for apartment buildings characterized by condominium ownership—where residents own their units and typically share in the management and funding of property upkeep—the issue can be difficult to correct.  

“In my experience, society generally puts up with the functions of code enforcement agencies, but unless they reap the tangible rewards of an effective code enforcement program, such as safe neighborhoods, sanitary living conditions, and the disappearance of neighborhood blight, they may not completely comprehend what it is we do,” said Michael Savage, director of the Building Safety department in Marion County, Florida. “Unfortunately, it’s in situations like the collapse where a light gets shined on the important role a building safety department or code enforcement department plays in the betterment of our society.” 

Ownership challenges  

In 1981, when Champlain Towers South opened at 8777 Collins Avenue in Surfside, Florida, advertisements touted the building’s 136 units as “magnificent” and “elegant,” located just 200 feet from Full Moon Beach. 

But nearly four decades later, documents show the structure was in dire need of work. A 2018 structural engineering report on the building detailed major deficiencies in its parking garage and pool deck. “Abundant cracking and spalling of varying degrees was observed in the concrete columns, beams, and walls,” the report by Maryland-based Morabito Consultants reads. “Though some of this damage is minor, most of the concrete deterioration needs to be repaired in a timely fashion.” That never happened.

According to various media reports, about a month after the report was released, a town official in Surfside assured Champlain Towers residents that the building was in “very good shape.” 

In April of this year, another warning came by way of a letter from the president of the condo association’s board of directors, Jean Wodnicki, to residents of the building. “The concrete deterioration is accelerating,” she wrote, proposing a $15 million plan to correct the issues. The building, Wodnicki said, was due for its 40-year inspection, as required by Florida law, later this year. It was too late. Just over two months after Wodnicki sent her letter, the building collapsed.

The collapsed portion of Champlain Towers South. (Miami-Dade Fire Rescue via Twitter)

Experts say this pattern of warnings followed by inaction should be a lesson to communities nationwide in what not to do.

But condominiums present specific challenges, according to Meghan Housewright, director of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute. Homeowners’ associations (HOAs) and condo boards like the one Wodnicki leads are usually the groups overseeing maintenance requests and decisions for these properties, but rarely are they qualified to make decisions related to safety or engineering. They’re also frequently strapped for cash. 

“They have a legal duty to act in the interest of safety, but as volunteers who aren’t usually building professionals, and who are balancing finances, they may lack the requisite knowledge and incentives to meet these responsibilities,” Housewright said. 

Tyler Berding, a California attorney whose firm works with hundreds of HOAs, recently shared a similar thought with the online magazine Slate. “Essentially what we’ve done is take some very sophisticated infrastructure and handed it off to laypeople, most of whom have no experience with maintaining it or determining the condition of it,” Berding said.

Where’s the money?  

Savage, who serves on the Structures, Construction, and Materials technical committee for NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, said he favors the creation of a large-scale structural evaluation assessment program to help address the issue. The program could help condo boards and HOAs determine and understand the significance of potential structural deficiencies within their properties. 

“Associations including NFPA and the International Code Council certainly have the ability and expertise within their membership to help facilitate such a program through the effective use of their codes and standards, such as NFPA 5000 and the International Property Maintenance Code,” Savage said. “A certificate of occupancy only shows that a building meets code and is safe at the single point in time it was inspected. Without an effective assessment and maintenance program, this level of safety may, and in some circumstances does, suffer over time.” 

NFPA has created similar tools in the past that allow users to calculate the highest-risk properties within a specific set of buildings for a specific hazard. The organization’s Exterior Facade Fire Evaluation and Comparison Tool (EFFECT), for instance, allows authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) to evaluate high-rises within their community at risk for fires involving combustible exterior wall components like flammable cladding and insulation. 

But even when the risks related to combustible exterior walls have been identified, it’s been a challenge to address them because of the expense of exterior wall removal and replacement work—and that’s likely to also be the case for structural deficiencies like the ones that had been identified at Champlain Towers. 

According to media reports, Champlain Towers only had about $800,000 in reserve funding at the time of June’s collapse—just 5 percent of the $15 million repair plan Wodnicki, the condo board director, proposed in her April letter to residents. “The only way to pay for the project was to charge each unit a special assessment, ranging from $80,000 to $200,000,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Owners balked at the high cost, leading to infighting and causing board members to resign.” The paper went on to cite similar squabbles that have played out nationwide. 

One idea that may gain more traction after the Surfside collapse, Housewright said, is to enforce laws requiring condo associations to maintain a certain level of reserve funding so repairs can be made if needed. Another idea, she said, is to make sure that local building code officials are alerted when deficiencies are identified, as well as “all residents—we don’t want to simply assume everyone in the building, renters included, will learn about it.” 

In the meantime, Savage urged anyone who’s concerned about the code compliance of a particular building to reach out to the local AHJ. “There are times when a concern is unfounded, but there are times when it is a bona fide issue that requires the enforcement agency to get involved in the name of life safety,” he said.

ANGELO VERZONI is an associate editor for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni.