Collapse of Florida condo points to need for stricter building codes, closer safety checks

As an investigation begins into the cause of the collapse March 27 of a condominium under construction in Cocoa Beach, Fla., some building-code experts are questioning the adequacy of current building practices.

At least 10 persons were killed in the fall of the five-story structure. Investigators on the scene fear that bodies of several more workers may be found under the debris.

The tragedy occurred while concrete was being poured on the top floor. There was some speculation that a heavy cement-pouring bucket may have been dropped onto the wet concrete, adding an unbearable stress on the shoring forms used to hold up the concrete until it dried.

Building-code professionals interviewed by this newspaper say there are a number of shortcomings in current regulations and practices.

The crucial element of how long shoring supports must be left in place while concrete construction dries is not covered by the three major building codes organizations. And federal standards cover this only partially.

In addition, most local governments, except in the larger cities, do not have personnel with the expertise to check the adequacy of construction plans or safety practises.

Plans for the collapsed condominium at Cocoa Beach were checked and approved by the city engineer, Ray Murray. But Mr. Murray told the Monitor he was not sufficiently trained to spot all potential problems. Regarding shoring practices, he said: "We'll leave it up to the experts."

Murray said Univel is the largest builder in the city and has a record of safe construction. Shoring standards are up to the contractor, and it may not be necessary for the city to impose standards, he said.

But one construction worker on the fallen condominium, James Dockett, was quoted in the New York Times as saying: "Twenty-two years I've been pouring concrete and they have never pulled the forms [to support concrete until dry] in two days like they did here.

Supports normally are left in place seven to 10 days, says an architect with one organization that prepares building codes.

Univel officials refused comment. Michael Mervis, a Milwaukee public relations consultant who does marketing for the company, denied any shortcuts were taken in the cement work.

"Quite frequently" cement shoring forms are removed too quickly, to save rental fees on them or to clear the area for other work, says Alfred Moffet, an architect with the Southern Building Code Congress.

"There's always a push to move in the most expedient manner," says John Traw, an engineer with the International Conference of Building Officials.

Robert Wendell, who just retired as southeastern regional director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), argues that tougher and more detailed standards on cement pouring should be adopted into federal law.

Both OSHA and Florida state o fficials plan to probe the cause of the collapse.

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