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5 disasters that changed how civil engineers work

14 June 2022

Engineering catastrophes from around the world that have highlighted potential gaps in learning for civil engineers.

5 disasters that changed how civil engineers work
The Grenfell fire tragedy has prompted the construction industry to more arduously test and regulate construction materials. Image credit: Alex D/Shutterstock

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

Buildings on the seafront in Miami, US
The condo collapse occurred in Surfside, a town in Miami, Florida in the United States. Image credit: Antonio C/Pexels

What happened

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.

This damage was identified in 2018, with repairs estimated to cost USD$9 million, but they were never completed.

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.

What’s changed

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.

Related CPD:

Construction project management is essential to build right the first time.

The Miami condo example also highlights the importance of structural waterproofing, particularly for coastal buildings.

2. The Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield, UK

Anfield stadium in Liverpool, UK
All-seater stadiums, such as Anfield (above), are the norm across the Premier League. Image credit: Tanasut C/Shutterstock

What happened

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.

What’s changed

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.

Related CPD:

Civil engineers working on sports grounds need to remember to put people first. ICE offers training on BIM implementation with a people-focus.

It’d also be important to read the latest edition of the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds and review fire safety at sports grounds.

Research into crowd analysis and simulation using big data could also provide useful insight.

3. The 2017 Puebla-Morelos earthquake, Mexico

Mexico City skyline
Many of the buildings that collapsed in Mexico City during the 2017 earthquake featured a soft storey. Image credit: Alexis T/Pexels

What happened

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.

What’s changed

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.

Related CPD:

Building resilient infrastructure requires an understanding of foundation design and structural load paths.

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

San Giorgio Bridge in Genoa, Italy
The new Genoa San Giorgio Bridge was designed by architect Renzo Piano. Image credit: MikeDotta/Shutterstock

What happened

On 14 August 2018, after a strong summer storm, a portion of the Morandi motorway bridge collapsed, killing 43 and leaving 600 people homeless.

Located in Genoa, the bridge was cable-stayed and featured single post-tensioned concrete stays and spans measuring over 200m.

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".

What’s changed

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.

Related CPD:

Several lectures and books are available to help civil engineers learn from history when it comes to bridge collapses.

The difficulty of inspecting the cables also highlights the need for innovation in inspection, for instance, by using drone-led inspection.

5. Grenfell disaster in London, UK

Sign supporting victims of Grenfell
Grenfell tower is located in north Kensington, in northwest London. Image credit: Alex D/Shutterstock

What happened

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 inquiry into the disaster found that the construction company had used cheaper, flammable cladding that’d even been prohibited in other countries.

This highlighted failures across the construction industry in the UK, particularly regarding construction product regulation.

The UK government commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to lead an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety.

What’s changed

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.

Related CPD:

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.

Related links

  • Ana Bottle, digital content editor at ICE