Last night a woman was killed in downtown Montreal when a 3 foot by 5 foot section of precast concrete came loose from the facade of the building above her and fell to the ground. A very tragic story since she was seated at a table in a restaurant across from her husband celebrating her birthday.

As with previous events where structures have failed, there has and will be a flurry of people asking why, assigning blame to which person or group they feel deserve it, and calling for more regulations or frequent inspections. Just over a decade ago a series of similar events occurred in Chicago on buildings older and taller. I think it might be pertinent to relay both what happened and what was done to avoid futher occurances.

My recollection of the events of facade failures is by memory, but I’m fairly sure they are correct. Within about a two year period, there were a handful of cases where pieces of brick or terra cotta fell from the upper stories of turn-of-the-century buildings. In one case, it was a piece of brick that fell and bumped someone on the head. Another case was a section of brick wall about four feet square that fell overnight onto the roof of another building. And I do remember pieces of terra cotta falling off one building overnight onto some parked cars below. After a while it started to seem like you would need to walk around downtown with a hard hat on. Many building owners took action by hiring facade inspection agencies to assure their buildings were secure. Many downtown sidewalks were covered with scaffolding to both protect the pedestrians and to provide a platform for the inspectors.

But there was one incident that was very similar to the tragedy last night. A woman who had been hard on her luck had just learned she would be getting a new job. She was walking downtown with her mother and was holding the hand of her young daughter. Across the street a window pane came loose from one of the upper stories of the building. It sailed down and across the street and decapitated her.

As these events were taking place, the mayor and the city government worked out ordinances requiring owners of tall buildings to undertake periodic inspections of their buildings. The ordinance they created gave the building owners two options. The first option was to have the building inspected from top to bottom by a building professional at arms length. Of course this is a long and costly process involving swing stages and street level scaffolding, but it would only be required every five years. The second option would be that a building professional would inspect the building, but through the use of binoculars. This would require that adjacent structures provide vantage points which would allow for an adequate inspection. This option costs less, but it would need to be undertaken every year. Though the building professional may deem a closer inspection is necessary depending on their findings. Either way, there would be some measure of security to protect the public. Many building owners were in an uproar, but they were likely the same who were saving money by not maintaining their buildings therefore contributing to the dangerous situation.

On a personal note, I almost went into the field of building forensics and facade investigation a couple times during my career. When I first left school I had an interview with Wiss, Janney, Elstner. They specialize in all manner of building forensics and it was seen as a dream job by many of us. I bombed the interview by showing up late and disheveled. Plus I think they relied heavily on the opinion of our professors whose favor I did not have. Many years later the office where I worked had a division which specialized in facade assessments. The ordinance in Chicago had recently been passed and there were not enough facade assessment specialists in the city to meet the sudden demand. I was asked if I was interested and I weighed the pluses and minuses. It is an interesting field, but a very specialized one. There is a long learning curve and as it takes many years of experience to get good at it. As a young engineer I was worried that I could get pigeon-holed into it not be able to get back to building new buildings. My boss put an end to that possiblity saying I was too deeply involved on a large project and could not be spared. That said, it’s possible I still could get into that type of work. Bits and pieces of experience that I’ve gathered over the years would probably shorten the learning curve. We recently acquired some people who specialize in building forensics and they look like they’ll need a hand. Even before any new regulations are created here.

~ by Frank on July 17, 2009.

3 Responses to “Facades”

  1. Building forensics. Who knew such a specialty existed? I’m tempted to make some silly joke about a new tv show, but I keep thinking about the horror of having someone you love die in front of you in such a terrible manner. Scary.

  2. Couldn’t this also be done from an abseiling rope? That way you don’t have to build scaffolding and the inspection would go faster too.

    Which reminds me I have to ask for quotes to have our façade repaired. Part of the brick has detached from the wood and some lentils are cracked. Pricey…

  3. Exactly why the RBQ adopted the new Law 122, some people are neglecting their property and that is harming everyone.

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