The devastating collapse of the Champlain Towers South condos in Miami has triggered alarm bells for Australia’s construction and property sectors. Here’s what we can learn. 

Adopting modern technologies to monitor aging buildings and ensure quality control during construction could help avoid devastating building collapses like the one in Florida last month.

Dr Duncan Maxwell, an expert on modern construction methods at Monash University, told The Fifth Estate next generation technologies, such as virtual design and construction software, blockchain-enabled supply chain tracking and onsite drones, are powerful tools for keeping buildings structural sound and defect-free.

The 40-year-old Champlain Towers South apartment building in Miami, which killed more than 90 people and injured many more when it collapsed in June, was built well before email or any form of digital record keeping. 

Maxwell says poor or non-existent record keeping makes it hard to identify issues in the design and construction stage and delegate responsibility for building defects, especially when combined with the construction industry’s high rates of insolvency. Similarly, without sound records, building managers have less to work with to keep buildings safe and well maintained. Without records from procurement stages, for example, managers have no way of knowing if the materials and components in the building met specifications.

However, despite the many benefits of using digital tools to manage construction projects – which also includes improved product quality and safety, less onsite wastage and even the potential to attract the next generation of tech-savvy workers – the construction industry remains one of the least digitalised in the world. For Maxwell, this is a missed opportunity.

Technology can also help maintain existing buildings

For existing buildings, technology can also help with building maintenance and alert managers to structural issues. Maxwell says there are now systems that monitor and assess structural integrity in buildings. Often developed in earthquake-prone areas, these systems can be retroactively installed in buildings. 

Buildings can also install moisture content monitoring and thermal energy performance to keep abreast of water damage issues. 

“For us it’s more about a patchwork of technology systems that indicate the state of the building’s health.”

All eyes on aging buildings on the coast

Maxwell notes that while the cause of the Miami apartment building collapse is expected to take months to diagnose, in Australia it will likely highlight the agenda around building inspections for aging existing buildings, especially in maritime environments.

“Australia has a lot of buildings in coastal environments and many of them are a similar age [to the Miami building] and built in the 80s.”

He suspects that conditions in coastal regions will only get more challenging as climate change increases the severity and frequency of extreme weather events such as cyclones.  

A wake up call for owner’s corporations

Image from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue

The Miami building collapse has also raised questions about the regulatory environment that drives structural building maintenance in Australia.

While the cause of the collapse is under investigation, structural issues flagged three years before the accident have been identified as a possible culprit. Repairs were supposed to begin soon but this still amounts to almost three years after the initial warning.  

NSW Strata Community Association president Chris Duggan expects the tragic Miami building collapse will elevate the structural maintenance issue much like the Grenfell Tower fires did for flammable cladding. 

“It’s a terrible story but will probably be the catalyst for action that was sorely needed.”

In Australia, structural liability falls under the basic remit of the strata corporation, Duggan explains. He says this is more or less the same in every state and territory. 

When it comes to proactive maintenance, he’s observed a level of complacency from body corporate committees that may be translating into troubling situations such as the structural defects found in the Mascot Towers complex in Sydney’s inner south.

Indeed, a recent survey released by the NSW construction watchdog found that 36 per cent of the 500 buildings survey (all built within the last six years) had serious defects but only 17 per cent had already been reported to the regulator.

NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler says the data points to “a fair degree of under-declaring going on in NSW.” He suspects the under-declaring is driven by apartment owners worried about diminishing the value of properties and potentially a reluctance to spend the money on repairs, especially when the owner is an investor and not actually living there. 

Duggan, who says he’s already noticed a “heightened sense of caution” in the wake of the Miami building collapse, warns against “overcorrecting” by tightening regulations further. 

“There’s now additional requirements for new buildings to have maintenance plans, there’s clear lines of liability for defects, I don’t know if additional regulation is need.”