Could my condo building collapse like the one in Florida? Expert says problems can be found faster in Canada

When Jack Driscoll saw the video of the collapsed condo building in Surfside, Fla., his first thought was: “That’s horrendous.”

Then he started wondering: Could that happen to his home?

Driscoll lives on the second floor of a 12-storey building on the Dartmouth side of Halifax Harbour. He can lean over his balcony railing and look straight down at the seawater lapping against the concrete foundation.

“You can’t help but have ‘What ifs,’ ” he said. “What if there’s a flood? What if there’s a crack in the concrete?”

In the 2016 census, more than 3.6 million Canadians reported living in condos. In Vancouver, more than 30 per cent of the city’s residents are condo dwellers, the largest percentage in Canada.

The collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside has left many of those condo dwellers, like Driscoll, asking if their buildings are at risk of a similar disaster.

According to the Canadian Condominium Institute — which advocates for condo owners — there are almost 113,000 condominium corporations in the country. Canada has never seen a major structural failure in a condo building. Regular inspections are required to spot potential problems before they become catastrophic. And almost all condo buildings have to put money aside to pay for future repairs. Neither of those things are mandatory in Florida.

That’s what happened in the case of Champlain Towers South. It was built in 1981 and had the first assessment of its condition in 2018. It found major structural issues that required millions of dollars in repairs.

‘Massive problem’

“We have a massive problem,” said Eric Glazer, a condo lawyer in Fort Lauderdale who also writes a blog and hosts a weekly radio show about condo issues. He has advocated for years for tougher regulations governing condo buildings.

“Right now, we are on the honour system here,” he said, adding that it’s largely up to condo boards to monitor their buildings for required repairs.

Only two counties in Florida require any kind of official inspection of the buildings – and they only have to happen when they are 40 years old.

That’s what happened in the case of Champlain Towers South. It was built in 1981 and had the first assessment of its condition in 2018. It found major structural issues that required millions of dollars in repairs.

An aerial view shows the partially collapsed building in Surfside on June 24. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

While the inspecting engineers did not find signs of imminent structural failure, it was clear the required work needed to be done urgently.

But when the residents were presented with the $9.1 million US bill, many of them pushed back, and refused to approve the needed work.

It took three years of bitter infighting before agreement was finally reached, and by then the estimated cost had ballooned to $15 million US. Work had just begun when the building collapsed on June 24.

Different rules in Canada

The rules around condo building inspections are very different in Canada.

Buildings have to be assessed every three to five years, depending on the province, in order to draw up what’s called a reserve fund study, also known as a depreciation report in British Columbia.

These studies project the likely repair and replacement costs of major components — like roofs, windows, elevators, balconies, heat and air conditioning — up to 30 years in the future.

Condo boards — except in Prince Edward Island — are required to fund those future costs through the monthly condominium fees that all owners pay towards the running costs of the building.

Officials overseeing the search at the site of the Florida condominium collapse became increasingly sombre about the prospects for finding anyone alive as time went on. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/The Associated Press)

Part of the reserve fund study process involves regular physical inspections of the building.

“In Ontario, you would not anticipate that it would take 40 years to spot something which was clearly an issue for a long time,” said certified reserve planner Chris MacMillan, owner of AvidCRP, based in Barrie, Ont.

MacMillan works with condo boards to make sure they put enough money aside to keep their buildings in good shape. He believes that the kind of problems uncovered before the Florida condo collapse would be identified much more quickly in Canada.

“That would be a red flag that we would observe on our site inspection for the reserve fund studies,” he said.

Playing catchup

But many older condo buildings are playing catchup with their reserve funds because they weren’t legally required to fund them properly at the time they were built. And they are now reaching the age when a lot of essential maintenance is needed.

“I would say if your building is 30 to 40 years old, you should have concerns,” said MacMillan. “Not that it will collapse, but that you should be acting upon any issues that are visible.”

That can be expensive. MacMillan cited one older building that he’s working with that requires $10 million in maintenance, but not enough was saved in its early years to cover the cost.

Figuring out just how much money to save is what MacMillan called an “inexact science.”

While the lifespan of major items like roofs, heating systems and windows is generally known, things can change. A sudden leak may lead to a roof replacement after 10 years rather than the expected 20. The price of raw materials may soar, as they did during the COVID pandemic.

But if the reserve fund has been properly maintained, there should always be a substantial pot of money available to cover a major part of the cost. The goal, MacMillan said, is to prevent future expensive repairs by paying for regular maintenance.

Not much money for a ‘rainy day’

It’s a very different story in Florida.

“You would hope that condo associations have put money aside for a rainy day,” said Glazer, “but the overwhelming majority of them in Florida have not.”

Florida law allows condo owners to vote on whether to maintain a reserve fund or to keep monthly fees as low as possible by not having one.

“We have a lot of 55-and-over communities here. And a lot of people in a 55-and-over community believe: ‘Why should we put away money for 15 or 20 years from now for the roof when we may not be alive at the time?’ ” said Glazer.

Officials decided to demolish the remains of the 12-storey Champlain Towers South condominium building because of the the approach of tropical storm Elsa and fears that the structure might come down in an uncontrolled fashion. (Saul Martinez/Getty Images)

The Champlain Towers South condo association did have a reserve fund, but after 40 years it had less than seven per cent of the money required for the necessary repairs to the building.

Glazer thinks the disaster will lead to changes in Florida laws, drawing on Canada’s experience and forcing condo associations to conduct more frequent inspections and to maintain adequate reserve funds.

MacMillan thinks the best way of keeping on top of potential problems in Canada’s condo buildings rests with the people who live in them and run them.

“Property managers and directors should be doing regular inspections themselves. They’re not professionals, but they can at least identify areas of concern,” he said.

That’s something that Driscoll is on board with. He said he’s now checking the underground parking garage in his building for cracks and water – the kind of warning signs that were identified before the Florida catastrophe.

“I never did that before,” he said. “But you need to be aware.”

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