The investigation could take years, lead to recommendations for building code improvements
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently announced that it would launch a full technical investigation into what caused the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condominium in Surfside, Florida, on June 24, 2021.
“This is an unspeakable tragedy, and like all NIST investigations, we will conduct a fact-finding study to prevent tragedies like this in the future,” said James Olthoff, who is currently performing the duties of the Undersecretary of Commerce for standards and technology and NIST Director, “We intend to undertake a thorough technical investigation into what caused the collapse, to ultimately make recommendations that would make our buildings safer and keep something like this from happening again. This effort will take time, but we will work on this as long as necessary.”
The NIST investigation will not interfere with the ongoing search-and-rescue operations.
NIST has been working with other government officials at the scene of the collapse, and the agency will continue to cooperate with all ongoing local, state and federal investigations. NIST investigators will only enter the actual site of the collapse after it is deemed safe for them to do so.
On June 30, 2021, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced it would launch a full technical investigation into what caused the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condominium in Surfside, Florida, on June 24.
There are millions of high-rise condominium units in Florida alone, many of them near the ocean or aging. While a NIST investigation is intended to identify the cause of the Champlain Towers South collapse, it could also uncover potential issues for other similar buildings nearby and throughout the nation.
Passed by Congress in 2002, the National Construction Safety Teams (NCST) Act authorizes the NIST director to deploy expert teams after the failure of a building that resulted in substantial loss of life or posed significant potential for doing so. These investigations ultimately aim to improve the safety and structural integrity of buildings in the United States.
Leading up to this decision, a preliminary NIST team spent several days in Surfside, Florida, to determine if the event met the criteria for a full investigation under the NCST Act. The team found that the collapse met necessary criteria to invoke the act. It was a major building failure at significantly less than its design basis, during construction, or while in active use. In addition, NIST determined that a fact-finding investigation of the building performance and emergency response and evacuation procedures will likely result in significant and new knowledge or building code revision recommendations needed to reduce or mitigate public risk and economic losses from future building failures.
The NIST team will:
- establish the likely technical cause or causes of the building failure;
- recommend, as necessary, specific improvements to building standards, codes and practices; and
- recommend any research and other appropriate actions needed to improve the structural safety of buildings.
NIST does not publish or set standards and does not have a regulatory role in building or construction. The team will include NIST staff members and non-NIST experts. Team members will collect and study information and material from the collapse to understand how the building was designed, constructed, modified and maintained. They also will examine samples of the building materials and the local soil conditions and any other potential contributing factors. The effort does not have a set timeline and is expected to take years to complete.
The team will provide regular updates on its progress to the National Construction Safety Team Advisory Committee at its regular meetings, which are open to the public.
NIST encourages the public to submit any information, including video or photos, that might help the investigation via a data portal that the agency has set up.
NIST is a federal research laboratory with extensive expertise in engineering and many other technical areas. NIST staff members work with experts in industry, academia and government to support the development of model building codes.
The National Construction Safety Teams (NCST) Act of 2002 authorizes NIST to conduct technical investigations of building failures, issue reports and make recommendations to improve building codes and standards. The NCST Act provides NIST the ability to collect and preserve evidence from the site of a failure and/ or disaster, issue subpoenas and hold hearings. NIST’s investigative authorities are secondary to criminal or terrorist investigations.
NIST was established in 1901, and one of its first contributions to disaster resilience happened after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, when much of the city was destroyed. NIST’s work helped usher in code improvements that were designed to ensure that fire hoses had compatible couplings with all hydrants, so that firefighters from different companies could work together more easily to extinguish large fires.
Since then, NIST has investigated many failures and disasters, including the World Trade Center collapses and Pentagon attack on 9/11, as well as many hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes around the world. Most recently, NIST has sent preliminary teams to the Gulf area in 2017 for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria; to Paradise, California, after the 2018 Camp Fire, which led to an ongoing study; and now to Surfside, Florida, for the Champlain Towers South Condominium collapse.
This will be the fifth investigation NIST has conducted using the NCST Act authorities. The prior four were – the World Trade Center disaster, with final reports published in 2005 (WTC 1 and 2) and 2008 (WTC 7); the 2003 Station nightclub fire, with a final report published in 2005; the 2011 Joplin tornado investigation, with a report published in 2014; and the Hurricane Maria investigation, which is ongoing (see the recently published interim report). The completed investigations have led to changes in building codes, standards, engineering practices, emergency response and emergency communications standards and practices.
NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.