By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A 12-story residential tower near Miami collapsed Thursday. Rescuers spent the weekend searching for trapped survivors, using sonar devices and cameras to detect signs of life. No cause is known, but building codes often prevent similar tragedies.
A 12-story residential building in Surfside, Florida, collapsed Thursday morning, leaving 10 dead and 151 unaccounted for as of press time. Although no cause has been pinpointed for the collapse, the building was due for structural repairs due to rusted steel and damaged concrete. County legislation in the area requires buildings to undergo recertification review after 40 years to ensure they’re up to code and structurally sound.
Building codes outline safety standards that engineers and construction crews must follow to prevent tragedies like the one in Surfside. In his video series Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life, Dr. Stephen Ressler, Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, said building codes date back nearly 4,000 years.
Breaking Down Building Codes
Safety inspectors often say that structures like houses need to stay “up to code,” but what does that mean? What exactly are building codes?
“A building code is a set of rules specifying minimum standards for construction,” Dr. Ressler said. “Its principal purpose is to protect public health, safety, and welfare—though modern codes also promote such secondary concerns as economy, constructability, and sustainability.”
According to Dr. Ressler, King Hammurabi of ancient Babylon set the first building codes in the 18th century BCE, with provisions that included builders being put to death if their structures collapsed on someone. Modern sets of building codes are much more detailed in preventing specific kinds of disasters.
“Not surprisingly, these initiatives to expand the scope and technical demands of building codes typically followed large-scale disasters, like the Great London Fire of 1666, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.”
Things improved somewhat with the establishment of model codes. Dr. Ressler said that model codes are basically consensus recommendations of a professional community represented by standards organizations. However, model codes have no legal status and can’t be enforced unless legislation involving them is passed.
The International Code Council
Until the late 20th century, building codes were still a mess. Despite the establishment of model codes, many places hadn’t adopted them into law. Dr. Ressler said that at the time, three standards organizations were publishing three independent model codes.
“That situation changed dramatically in 1994, when these three organizations merged to form the International Code Council, or ICC,” he said. “By 2000, the ICC was publishing the first true national building codes in the United States.
“The ICC is is a professional society composed of technical experts, industry representatives, and regulators who work collaboratively to develop 15 interrelated and complementary model codes.”
Some of these codes include the International Building Code, the International Energy Conservation Code, and the International Residential Code. When it comes to residential codes, modern standards have become so institutionalized that they can often take the place of engineers’ designs. Codes are updated every three years based on suggestions to change that are approved by the ICC.
As of press time, rescue efforts in Surfside are ongoing.