City engineers don’t see Miami repeat likely with Seattle’s high rises

Jul 8, 2021, 5:45 PM
seattle, high rises...
(Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images for Rock'n'Roll Marathon )
(Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images for Rock'n'Roll Marathon )

After the recent condo collapse in Surfside, Florida — which killed more than 60 people, with dozens more still missing and presumed dead — residents of Seattle’s many high rises may be wondering if their own buildings are secure.

But engineers with the City of Seattle say that sky-dwelling Seattleites can take comfort in knowing the likelihood of such a tragedy occurring here is extremely low.

“Locally speaking, many of our high rises and taller structures are designed, structurally, to a higher performance standard given our concern with seismicity,” said Kai Ki Mow, principal engineer with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

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He noted that it is hard to compare Seattle buildings with Florida ones, as the climate and geological differences lead to differences in structural design. However, Mow did emphasize that inspections happen often throughout the process of constructing a new building, right up until residents walk in the door.

“Construction goes through a very rigorous design and review process, even before construction begins,” he said. “Structural design failures like [the Miami building] are extremely, extremely rare.”

Engineers look for every detail that could make a difference in how safe the building is, no matter how seemingly insignificant — like “making sure the right kind of concrete mix is being used or making sure the proper procedure is being used when you’re anchoring a heavy piece of equipment on your ceiling,” Mow said.

After an apartment building is completed and opened to the public, unless there is any new construction on that building, it is up to the owner or property manager to maintain it, including hiring engineers to do regular checks.

“We do not have required re-inspections of the building after it’s received its certificate of occupancy,” said Ardel Jala, building official for the Department of Construction and Inspections. “We would typically investigate buildings for their structural integrity after an external event — say there was a fire, or a landslide, something that might have compromised the building.”

But for those worried that their 1930s apartment building is at risk of collapsing, Jala reminds Seattleites that it is normal for buildings to settle, with materials swelling and contracting. Buildings can even move and flex with wind up to a point.

“Minor cracking of interior finishes — that apartment building in Capitol Hill that is 100 years old — there is going to be some cracking that you’ll see just due to normal building movements,” Jala said. “And that movement is expected.”

But if you’re in one of Seattle’s older buildings and you see a prominent uptick in cracking or other issues over months or years, it is always best to let your building owner know.

“What you’re really looking for is an increase in building movement or in cracking, or signs that the building is moving over time,” Jala said. “And those are things that you should potentially bring to the attention of your building owner or property manager.”

If the person responsible for upkeep ignores these concerns, you can file a complaint on the city’s website. In this case, the city will send an inspector to look at the building and see if the concern is valid. If a building is deemed unsafe, the city can require a building owner to make repairs.

“We rely on complaints from the public to identify any violation of all of our codes, not just the building codes,” Jala said.

The good news? Jala said that, right now, there are no active complaints about any Seattle high rises.

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City engineers don’t see Miami repeat likely with Seattle’s high rises