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The Champlain Towers collapse highlights a solemn truth: No built environment is perfectly safe | COMMENTARY

Search and rescue team members dig through the debris field of the 12-story oceanfront condo, Champlain Towers South along Collins Avenue in Surfside, Fla., on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)
Search and rescue team members dig through the debris field of the 12-story oceanfront condo, Champlain Towers South along Collins Avenue in Surfside, Fla., on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP) (Al Diaz/AP)

The collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Florida, is a tragedy of incomprehensible magnitude. It will likely be a considerable time before the public will have a clearer picture of the sequence of events that lead to the disaster. Those of us who are emerging professionals in the practice of architecture see this event as a reminder of the role we will play in society as licensed professionals: that the first and foremost responsibility of the architect is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public.

As with any profession, the day-to-day realities of managing projects and running a business are substantial but must be done within the context of our duty to the community. The designers of buildings are just one part of a larger team comprising property owners, developers, contractors, suppliers, engineers, architects and others. The process of moving from a conceptual design to a constructed building is by nature collaborative and reliant on multiple partners and on multiple parties sharing a common mission. Everyone has a vested interest in protecting the safety of building occupants. Architects and engineers labor to design safe structures, and contractors construct those designs to meet required standards of care in accordance with best practices and the law. In addition, those who fund and develop buildings carry the burden of providing sufficient budget and schedule to allow for the completion of safe design and construction. Finally, building owners and managers must ensure continued safety over the life span of the building by properly maintaining the structure in keeping with its design specifications.

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Among the many goals of a well-designed and well-constructed building should be to relieve the occupant’s burden of tending to their own safety to the extent possible. In other words, architects and engineers take great care providing spaces with fresh air, ample space for living and working, and a variety of passive and active fire prevention and protection systems. The public should be aware that buildings are required by law to meet many such building codes that have been written with health and safety in mind. For example, most people are familiar with obvious safety features such as exit signs and sprinkler heads, but they may not be aware that the maximum distance they must travel to reach an emergency exit is regulated by the building code and is dependent on the usage of the structure. However, these standards do not completely remove the occupant’s responsibility of common-sense awareness. In the real world we must contend with buildings that may not be code compliant for any number of reasons, or we may experience emergencies that are so unique that the typical standards of design could not have reasonably foreseen them.

The public can also play a role in ensuring building safety. By demanding that health and safety continue to be a priority in our public policy and in the formation and revisions of regulations and standards, the community protects its own best interests. We live in a world where budget and schedule needs must be considered, but these factors should not compromise safety and the public welfare. Buildings are not static objects. They move and settle over time, usually within accepted tolerances. They require cleaning, maintenance and inspection, not unlike the care we give to cars, boats and airplanes with the goal of maintaining safety.

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The catastrophic collapse of a building highlights a solemn truth: No amount of skill, experience and principle will ever yield a perfectly safe built environment. That fact can and should be a galvanizing force for the next generation of professionals. Our work should always strive toward safer and better designs. When failures occur, no matter how large or small, it is our duty to prudently analyze what went wrong and how it can be prevented in the future. This is how we can ensure that tragedies like the Champlain Towers South collapse will remain mercifully rare.

John H. Hahn (jhahn219@gmail.com) is an architectural designer at Marshall Craft Associates Inc. in Baltimore.

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