Fenestration Forum: February 2015
By Brian Burton
Lessons from tragedy
By Brian Burton
The well-publicized collapse of the Algo shopping mall
The well-publicized collapse of the Algo shopping mall in the northern Ontario community of Elliot Lake demonstrated a number of classic patterns that are typical of catastrophic building failure. “Catastrophic” not only describes what amounts to a total structural failure, it also refers to results of these kinds of events. This collapse resulted in two unfortunate fatalities and a dramatic rescue attempt by first responders, creating a great deal of distress in the community.
Catastrophic failures that result in fatalities receive a great deal more media attention than projects that experience minor failures causing problems with building operation or performance. This is natural, but it tends to mask the reality that small problems turn into big problems, and give people the mistaken impression that the safety of the buildings they occupy is closely monitored.
Aside from the fact that the building was 33 years old and clearly at the end of its effective service life, the occurrence did involve some unique circumstances which played an important role. The fact that vehicles, out of necessity, had to be parked on the mall roof because no outdoor parking space was available on the site could be traced back to the conversion of the building to retail space when it was purchased more than a decade ago. The evidence indicated that the collapse was primarily caused by rusting structural connections between columns and beams. Considerable water penetration had occurred over time. The structural distress was compounded by this continual water leakage, freeze/thaw cycles and the presence of salt. One location in particular was cited as the critical failure point.
The unfortunate event prompted the Ontario government to initiate a formal inquiry in 2013 which eventually released transcripts and published a number of recommendations based on its findings and evidence provided by over 100 witnesses. Inquiries of this nature are complex and expensive. In this case, the intent was to investigate the actual building failure as well as the response to the accident by police, firefighters and first responders.
The inquiry’s report was quite explicit in describing what the inquiry panel considered professional oversight by local building inspectors and engineers. It found that the evidence of serious building deterioration was clearly apparent and had been brought to the building owners attention on more than one occasion. The inquiry heard evidence that building inspectors as well as others observed the building’s rapidly deteriorating condition and reported on the problems on a number of occasions. The building owner was apparently warned repeatedly that the building was at risk and repairs that were made were obviously ineffective.
Unfortunately the inquiry board found that most of these inspection reports were ignored for the most part and the deterioration continued unabated for some time. The point that should be stressed here is that we do in fact have adequate regulations and safeguards contained within our building code and supported by legislation. If they are not adequately enforced, we are wasting time, money and, in extreme cases like this, lives. Again, building professionals specifically told the mall owners that remedial repairs were urgently required and apparently the reports were ignored.
Even though we might have been able to learn specific lessons about how and why this particular failure occurred and what could have been done to prevent it, the industry has unfortunately been plagued by significant quality control problems for decades and a single event, or inquiry for that matter, is unlikely to solve all the problems.
In fact each Canadian citizen pays, without knowing the details, approximately $2,000 a year to repair defective construction which could have been avoided in most cases by applying building science principles and a degree of discipline with regard to issuing building permits and effective regulatory enforcement.
Brian is now involved with an innovative multidisciplinary firm that specializes in technical business writing: Award Bid Management Services http://award-bid-management-services.com/ . The firm assists companies interested in selling goods and services to governments and institutions. He can be reached at Burton@award-bid-management.com