It will take months, if not years, to determine the cause of the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida.
Our nation is blessed with sound building codes; highly professional architects, engineers, and surveyors; and quality construction firms. When earthquakes, hurricanes, structural failures, and other calamities impact foreign countries, the destruction to buildings too often results in tragic loss of life. In America, such instances are rare.
That is not to say the United States is immune from faulty buildings, private or public. After incidents such as the collapse of the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City and the implosion of the roof of the Hartford Civic Center, Congress investigated these cases and issued a report on “Structural Failures in Public Facilities” in 1984.
The tragic event in Florida, and early media reports speculating on contributing factors bring to mind two issues of importance to the surveying and engineering community. The first is the importance of qualification based selection (QBS). The Congressional report found, “procurement practices that lead to or promote the selection of architects and engineers on a low bid basis should be changed to require prequalification of bidders with greater consideration given to prior related experience and past performance.” Of course, surveying and mapping is considered part of architecture and engineering under the “Brooks Act,” the federal QBS procurement law.
When the Brooks Act was debated in Congress almost 50 years ago, Senator Jennings Randolph (D-WV) warned on the Senate floor, “ask 10 A/E firms to bid on the design of a particular facility and many agencies will take the easy way out and select the low bidder. Under such circumstances, we may end up with a technically capable architect or engineer, but one who, for lack of experience or because of a desire to stay within his bid, reduces the time spent on field surveys or in the preparation of detailed drawings, or in providing inspection services. As a result, the government may have saved itself a half of one percent on the design fee while adding 5 to 10 percent to the cost of construction, operation or maintenance."
There is no evidence the owner/developer of Champlain Towers used a low bid architect, engineer, or surveyor. But this unfortunate episode should serve as a reminder that such corner cutting could result in long term catastrophe. If inaccurate, a survey could cloud land titles or jeopardize subsequent construction designs that must rely on accurate survey data.
Just as a poorly designed dam can burst, subjecting the owner/developer to huge claims, so too can a poorly planned or executed survey unleash a flood of problems, creating an impediment to the expeditious completion of a government project, causing substantial loss of time and money, and jeopardizing the public safety. Like a well made dam, a high quality survey or map will stand the test of time and will ensure that a design, construction, resource planning or other projects can proceed based on complete and precise groundwork.
In recent months, my colleague John “JB” Byrd and myself have been assisting the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Geodetic Survey (NGS) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and others on the development of a National Land Level Change (NLLC) map on behalf of clients such as the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) and the U.S. Geospatial Executives Organization (U.S. GEO). This small scale national map would help identify areas of the U.S. that are prone to subsidence. A national subsidence program was authorized by Congress in the National Landslide Preparedness Act, section 4 of Public Law 116-323, that was signed into law by President Trump on January 5, 2021, before leaving office earlier this year. NSPS was a strong advocate for the legislation.
News reports on the tragic high rise collapse in Florida has led scientists and engineers to identify subsidence as a contributing factor to the structural failure. This has led Byrd to begin discussions with members of Congress on the appropriation of funds for USGS to begin a NLLC map to track areas of subsidence, which will stimulate more precise and accurate large scale surveying and mapping by local surveyors on a site specific basis in subsidence-prone locales.
Surveyors and practitioners in related geospatial disciplines play an essential role in design and construction, as well as many other activities that impact public health, safety, and welfare. Not only is licensing an important aspect of this quality of life, but the engagement of qualified and knowledgeable professionals, based on demonstrated competence and qualifications, and the acquisition and application of accurate and reliable data, is a reminder that “quality remembered long after the price is forgotten."