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Florida condo board saw flaws in original construction in tests after 2018 engineer’s report

Fire crews wade through water in the basement parking garage of the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Fla., on June 24. (Miami Dade Fire Department/Reuters)

Two years after a 2018 engineering report warned of structural damage due to poorly laid waterproofing around the pool at Champlain Towers South, the condo board told residents that there was also no waterproofing at all over other portions of the building’s underground parking garage, a condition that had “exposed the garage to water intrusion for 40 years,” records show.

The lack of waterproofing was one of several issues identified in further testing after the October 2018 report, including two that the condo board characterized as design or construction flaws, according to board documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The installation of waterproofing to protect the garage from damage was a priority item in a $15 million package of repairs that was likely to “tear up most of the property,” documents show. Most of the repairs had not begun when the building collapsed last week, killing at least 18 people and leaving more than 140 unaccounted for.

The new documents provide fresh information about unresolved problems that had blighted the Champlain complex in the years before the catastrophe, and they add to questions about the quality of the original construction of the building.

The search for the cause or causes of the disaster is expected to take many months. Experts said it was too early to reach any conclusions and were divided over whether the flaws identified in the documents reviewed by The Post might have contributed to the collapse.

Photographs of the site taken since the disaster show that part of a ground-level parking deck, under the surviving portion of the building, did sink into the parking garage below. Resident Sara Nir told The Post this week that she saw that part of the parking deck and a nearby pool deck had collapsed shortly before major sections of the building came down.

Video, images and interviews deepen questions about role of pool deck in condo collapse

Khalid M. Mosalam, a professor of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, said that errors in waterproofing of the slabs above the garage could have led to corrosion and caused the slabs in the parking deck to partially collapse. “Over time, this failure could happen,” Mosalam said in an email.

Albert Bleakley, an associate professor of mechanical and civil engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology, said he believed it was unlikely that the lack of waterproofing could explain the collapse of major portions of the building. The waterproofing issue was near parts of the building that still stand, he noted. There was no ground-level parking deck under the portions of the building that collapsed.

The area around the pool deck and driveway “probably should have had waterproofing,” Bleakley said in an interview, “but both of those areas seem to be pretty far removed from the area where the building started collapsing.”

Bleakley said it was hard to know what to make of the issues the board identified as flaws, because the presentations were not professional reports and did not include thorough descriptions. The lack of waterproofing is noted in an engineer’s letter that he reviewed.

Several structural engineers told The Post this week that video footage of the collapse suggested that it began somewhere around the building’s lowest levels or in the underground parking garage.

The Post obtained documents that leaders of the condominium board gave condo owners during long-running and contentious discussions about a multimillion-dollar repair program that was needed for the building to pass a 40-year inspection for recertification from local authorities.

A slide show presentation dated Oct. 14, 2020, said that contractors would need to “tear up most of the property” to carry out the necessary repairs. “There is no waterproofing layer over the garage in the driveway or any area except the pool deck and planters,” the presentation said. “This has exposed the garage to water intrusion for 40 years.”

An additional bullet point stated: “Where there is waterproofing, it has failed. Water has gotten underneath and caused additional damage to the concrete.”

The waterproofing problem was also noted in a report by a property manager that was attached to the minutes of a condominium board meeting that same day. “Preliminary observations suggest no waterproofing was installed in the drive areas,” the manager, Scott Stewart, said in the report. Stewart did not respond to messages seeking comment.

A second slide show presentation, which was shared at two meetings with residents in December 2020, said that concrete slabs under an inland section of the building’s grounds — on the opposite side of the building from the portions that later collapsed — had been “overstressed since the day the building went up,” a problem that was attributed to a “design or construction flaw.” Necessary repairs to this area would ensure “that the structural slab has sufficient capacity to support the code required loads,” the presentation said. Without elaboration, it added in a parenthetical note that “the original building structural drawings specify inadequate slab reinforcing.”

Plans show that this section of the slab sat above a storage area inside the underground garage. The presentation said of the storage units that “many are rotted or soaked with sewage from repeated leaks.”

No obvious damage to this area of the Champlain complex is visible in photographs taken since the disaster.

The December presentation also said that because of a “design flaw” the parking deck and a driveway — wrapping around what is now the surviving portion of the building — above the garage was “flat with very poor drainage.” It said that the drainage problems “must be corrected.”

It was not clear from the documents who delivered the two slide show presentations, but Jean Wodnicki, the president of the building’s condominium board association, was identified as the author of the presentations in their metadata. Wodnicki did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The presentations did not attribute the information about the building’s problems. But some details had appeared deep in a seven-page letter sent to the board on Oct. 13, 2020, by Frank P. Morabito — the engineer who had discovered the damage in 2018 — along with two colleagues from Morabito Consultants, his Sparks, Md.-based company.

The letter said that contractors directed by Morabito Consultants had taken samples of concrete from slabs around the ground level of the complex, and that the testing had produced “some curious results,” which were not identified. The letter was first reported by the Miami Herald on Thursday.

Notes in a detailed chart attached to Morabito’s letter showed that several core concrete samples, including those taken from the ground-level driveway and parking areas, had revealed “no waterproofing.”

The letter said that the contractors had removed loose and damaged concrete from a pool pump room but added that they were not able to complete all necessary repairs. “Aggressive excavation of concrete at the severely deteriorated pool corbel could affect the stability of the remaining adjacent concrete construction,” Morabito and his colleagues wrote.

Morabito’s 2018 report said the waterproofing on the pool deck area had been laid on a flat surface rather than a slope, which would have allowed the water to run off. “Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” Morabito wrote.

While the report said that “entrance drive/pool deck/planter waterproofing is laid on a flat structure,” the documents shared with residents in 2020 indicate that further testing had shown that there was no waterproofing on the entrance drive area.

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