Honolulu building-inspection mandate back in spotlight after being waylaid by fire priority

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The collapse of a condo building in Florida shines a spotlight on high-rise building safety in the islands. The Florida building was due for a re-certification, which is a process that similar large structures in Honolulu do not face.

Always Investigating follows up.

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There was an attempt to better regulate large structures in Honolulu after a deadly building component failure several years ago. Some say it is past time to revive it.

Honolulu shares more than sun, sea and sand with Miami. Its coastal high rises are also inundated with the same stresses that may have undermined the collapsed Florida structure.

“We have the ocean close by, there’s sea level rise, water is rising, touching the foundations and causing havoc,” explains Lance Luke, a consultant with Construction Management Inspection LLC. “When you have both the concrete deteriorating, because of the salt, and the rebar, now you have a major situation. It’s almost catastrophic if it affects the foundation.”

It is a problem many Hawaii condo residents and association boards know all too well.

“That’s how I found out we were affected by spalling,” said Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council of Community Associations, who is a condo resident herself. “I came home one day and there’s yellow tape in front of the building. I said, ‘What happened?’ And they said, ‘Concrete just fell off the building.’”

One man was killed and another man severely injured in 2016 when they fell as a rusted railing toppled at Ala Moana Center, and City inspectors found more rust and concrete spalling elsewhere. Within months, the Honolulu City Council was advancing a measure (Bill 17, of 2017) to mandate inspections of all buildings over three stories every five years by a licensed professional with a focus on spalling and structural support. It got major pushback from condo associations.

“If you’re going to be doing that type of inspection or that type of review,” Sugimura said, “it’s going to be very expensive for the associations.”

“That accident turned into a ‘now we’ve got to be reactive, not proactive,’” Luke recalls, “and then people forget about it.”

After passing the second reading, the Honolulu inspection bill stalled in committee after the Marco Polo blaze in summer 2017 turned all eyes toward fire sprinkler and life-safety legislation.

“Florida is a wake up call. Something like Miami could happen in Hawaii, and soon, we don’t know,” Luke said. “I mean, there are already buildings that have major spalling repairs and they’re fixing it, but some buildings aren’t fixing it. They’re out there and someone could have another railing accident or a whole balcony could collapse.”

Always Investigating asked the County building department whether regulations need to be put in place to standardize building recertifications on a regular timeline.

“In light of what has happened in Florida, we might consider focusing on an education/awareness effort for property owners, AOAOs, shopping centers, etc., to take a closer look at their improvements to address any deficiencies before any failures occur in the future,” Department of Planning and Permitting director Dean Uchida said in a statement. “Maintenance of private high-rise buildings in Honolulu is the responsibility of the building’s owner or management firm. However, if we become aware that a building may be unsafe, we will send an inspector to investigate.”

“That’s not nearly enough because fact of the matter is that the building inspectors do not go to a building that’s already constructed unless there’s a complaint,” Luke said. “Right now it’s wild, wild west. Anything goes and you don’t have to fix your building. There’s no compliance needed. And it’s the self-compliance that doesn’t work. It works for some condo buildings, but not all.”

A condo budget-and-reserves law dating back to the 1990s requires associations to track and set aside money to keep up with critical component repair and replacement.

“In most instances, the associations have experts, they have property managers who are cognizant,” Sugimura said. “You’re going to get a few rogue buildings out there where you have people saying, ‘Oh, don’t raise my maintenance fees,’ and that’s the scary thing.”

Fees are likely to go sky high because of the Miami tragedy anyway, regardless of whether more inspections or repairs become requirements.

“The associations in Hawaii use the same reinsurance as the carriers that are going to have to insure the Miami condominium disaster,” Sugimura said, “and so all our rates are going to go up.”

Even if legislation for mandatory inspection cycles is not renewed, building experts said, do it anyway.

“Please check your building and have somebody check it if you can’t do it on your own, and when you get the results, act on it and fix your building” Luke said. “Money should not be an issue. The condo law specific. It does not have a clause saying if you don’t have any money, you don’t have to fix your building, so be safe out there. “

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