Engineering catastrophes from around the world that have highlighted potential gaps in learning for civil engineers.
Part of recovering from a catastrophe is reassuring the community that steps are being taken to prevent it from happening again.
For civil engineers, who help ensure the safety and resilience of our infrastructure, it means learning from these disasters and upgrading skills and knowledge accordingly via continued professional development (CPD).
Here, we look at five disasters that have led to changes in codes, standards and work practices that all civil engineers need to be aware of.
1. Surfside condominium collapse in Miami, US
On 24 June 2021, the Champlain Towers South building in Miami collapsed, resulting in the death of 98 people.
The condominium had substantial concrete structural damage in its pool deck area, mainly from failed waterproofing.
Before the building collapsed, inspections were mandatory 40 years after construction, and every 10 years onwards. Champlain Towers South was in its 40th year when it collapsed.
After the disaster, building inspections and recertifications were brought forward to 30 years after construction.
Furthermore, as of 2023, Miami-Dade County will require all condominiums and homeowner associations to release financial statements, maintenance and engineering reports, planned capital projects and insurance certificates to a public database.
2. The Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield, UK
On 15 April 1989, football fans were crowded and crushed against the high steel fencing in Leppings Lane Terrace at Hillsborough Stadium. Ninety-seven lives were lost due to this disaster.
In a critical assessment of the disaster, ICE found deviations from the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds concerning geometry, layout and spacing between barriers on the terrace.
As these are necessary for adequate safety, ICE concluded it demonstrated “poor professional judgement”.
A report into the disaster took place in April 1989, undertaken by Lord Justice Taylor. It found lack of police control at the root of the catastrophe.
The report recommended removing perimeter and lateral fencing and called for all-seater stadiums, which revolutionised safety at football grounds and sport arenas.
However, in 2021, the UK government announced that from 1 January 2022, standing will be allowed at specific areas of five designated football stadiums. This is part of a review of the ban on standing in stadiums.
Civil engineers working on sports grounds need to remember to put people first. ICE offers training on BIM implementation with a people-focus.
Research into crowd analysis and simulation using big data could also provide useful insight.
3. The 2017 Puebla-Morelos earthquake, Mexico
On 19 September 2017, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit central Mexico, killing more than 200 people and toppling dozens of buildings in Mexico City.
It struck exactly 32 years after an 8.1 magnitude earthquake killed more than 9,000 people and left 100,000 homeless.
After the 1985 earthquake, building codes changed and protections against earthquakes were established.
But after the 2017 event, surveys found that severely damaged structures corresponded to old seismic codes (1942-1976), highlighting that even after 1985, the city’s earthquake resilience wasn’t optimal.
In fact, many damages and collapses were observed in buildings designed according to 1987 and 2004 codes, implemented after the 1985 earthquake.
To avoid this extent of damage, studies have recommended resilience-based retrofitting, upgrading of existing structures and implementing a new resilience-based seismic design code.
These can then be rated using Arup’s Resilience-based Design Initiative for the Next Generation Buildings (REDi).
REDi guidelines give engineers a framework for resilience-based design for earthquakes, extreme storms and flooding.
4. Morandi Bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy
On 14 August 2018, after a strong summer storm, a portion of the Morandi motorway bridge collapsed, killing 43 and leaving 600 people homeless.
By 1979, the bridge's designer, Riccardo Morandi expressed concern about the rate of degradation of the bridge, citing the marine environment and nearby pollution as contributors.
When investigators assessed the scene after the collapse, they found evidence of corrosion and damage to the main stay cables of the collapsed section of the bridge.
Result of analyses have shown that the "stay cable was the most critical element whose failure would have triggered the collapse".
In 2020, architect Renzo Piano unveiled the new Genoa San Giorgio Bridge, replacing Morandi bridge.
The new bridge will be continuously monitored using internal sensors, which will be supported by robots to assess the bridge’s external structure.
5. Grenfell disaster in London, UK
On 14 June 2017, the cladding on the Grenfell tower in London caught fire, resulting in 72 people losing their lives and untold trauma for their families and many others living nearby.
The UK government commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to lead an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety.
The Fire Safety Bill was introduced in 2020, amending the 2005 version. This bill should result in greater clarity over responsibility for fire safety in buildings containing more than one home.
In 2021, the Building Safety Bill passed, seeking to verify the competence of built environment professionals and provide residents with more power in the decision-making process.
Following ICE’s In Plain Sight report, the institution created a CPD framework, which presents topics highly recommended for professionally qualified ICE members to undertake as part of their annual CPD.
It includes core topics, such as the Swiss Cheese model of risk management, and another five sections with topics from particular industry sectors.
For instance, for structures and buildings, the institution recommends an understanding of structural load paths and the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations from 2015 and their applications.