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Florida Condo Collapse Fixes Attention On Design, Maintenance Standards

In this photo provided by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, search and rescue personnel search for survivors through the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Fla., on Friday.
In this photo provided by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, search and rescue personnel search for survivors through the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Fla., on Friday.

Following the collapse of a high-rise condo building in Florida, people across the country are asking questions about building safety.

Illinois does not have a 40-year building re-certification requirement as Florida does, but experts said that should not matter.

David Gill is the director of facilities planning and construction at Illinois State University. Gill said safety begins with annual checkups on high rises like Watterson Towers.

"If they notice any unusual problems or cracks in concrete, they will contact our office. We have architects and engineers on staff. We would send somebody over to look at it. If it's a serious issue and we need specialty consultants, we would engage an outside structural engineer or forensic person to make a recommendation," said Gill.

At 298 feet and 28 stories, Watterson is considerably taller than the 13-story condo that collapsed. Watterson also is 11 years older than the 40-year-old Miami condo. Watterson went into service in 1969, though Gill said Watterson is still in great shape.

Part of the reason the Miami condo went down was structural metal deterioration caused by salt sea air. The Midwest doesn't have that. Illinois does have environmental challenges of its own. Gill said winter and parking decks, for instance.

"We put salt down to de-ice surfaces. That salt leaches into concrete and can erode the rebar, the structural element of the concrete. So things like parking decks are going to get a much more frequent evaluation for structural degradation," said Gill.

Gill said parking decks have a three to five-year maintenance cycle with various procedures required to keep them in shape. He said high rise buildings such as Watterson, Hewitt-Manchester, and Tri-Towers on campus also are designed with wind in mind to accept swaying and deflection without harm.

He said buildings are like cars. They have a natural, though longer, lifespan.

"You would plan to drive a car for so many years and all the parts start to wear out and then you either have to do a major overhaul and rebuild it, or you would replace it with something new. Buildings are similar. They hit a certain point in their life, and you need to be looking at all those things," said Gill.

When they do hit old age, he said that doesn't mean they are unsafe and must be torn down. They just may not fit their original use.

"Quite often, those buildings get repurposed for new uses and you would evaluate all those systems at that time. Depending on the type of construction, buildings would last from 50 to 100 years and we have several buildings on campus that are over 100 years old," said Gill.

High-rise buildings typically have tougher standards than something four stories or less that is made of wood, he said. Paradoxically that means the lower-rise buildings need inspection more often.

Building codes change over time and structures such as the original State Farm building in downtown Bloomington or Watterson Towers would not be built that way today. Gill said that does not make them unsafe if properly maintained, as both are.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.