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The partial collapse of a condominium building recently in Surfside, Fla., has put building codes and inspections in the national spotlight. As of July 8, at least 60 people were killed in the collapse, with another 80 people missing.
The cause of the collapse remains unknown, but reports as far back as 2018 warned that damage to the building needed to be repaired.
The collapsed building represents a nightmare scenario for every professional involved in permitting and inspections - including Luke Tillema, building official for the City of Minot.
For Tillema, public safety tops the list of his department’s responsibilities.
“That’s our No. 1 role in my mind,” he said. “My view is that we’re here for the safety of everyone. Codes are meant to save lives. That’s what we do.”
When tragedies occur, like the condo building collapse in Florida, it often leads to national changes in building codes.
“I guarantee there will be new codes written after the Florida tragedy,” Tillema said. “It’s a right of everyone to go into any building and be safe.”
In the spring of 2020, Tillema and his staff dealt with a somewhat similar issue in Minot. As part of the sale of a downtown building, the prospective buyer requested an inspection. A private engineer hired to inspect the building found numerous concerns with the structural integrity of the building, noting that the structure was in imminent danger of collapse. As he was required to do, notified the City of his findings.
“He sent us the report, and it was very alarming,” Tillema said. “This was a dangerous building. I used that report as documentation and reasoning to order that the building be evacuated.”
That meant tenants living in the building’s apartments had to move out, and a retail store had to close until repairs could be made.
“This was not an easy decision, but I felt it was necessary because of the condition of the building. Columns holding up the first floor had deteriorated to the point that rebar was exposed, and the rebar was crumbling when I touched it,” Tillema said.
A second engineer hired by the building’s owner confirmed that the building had serious problems. Eventually, repairs were made and the building was again certified safe for occupancy.
“That’s how the process is supposed to work. When we have knowledge of a situation like that, I want to find a solution as soon as possible,” Tillema said. “I want whoever goes into that building to not have to think about their safety. It has to be a safe place for the public. I take that very seriously.”
For Tillema, the responsibility to do his job correctly, even when faced with difficult decisions, doesn’t stop when the work day ends.
“Again, it’s all about safety. I don’t want to see the faces of victims in my head when I go to sleep at night, knowing that I could have done something to prevent a tragedy from happening,” he said.
Tillema’s department consists of six inspectors: one residential building inspector, one commercial building inspector, one mechanical inspector, two electrical inspectors, and one senior inspector who is currently doing the work of a plumbing inspector. The group handles approximately 1,200 inspections every year.
“They’re all so different, but on average I would say we’re doing between six and 10 building inspections, and between five and seven for each for the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing,” Tillema said. “At the end, we’ll do a final inspection, and if it’s a commercial property the Fire Department comes with us.”
The inspection process can be a long one, and usually includes multiple visits to the site to inspect various aspects of the project.
“We begin with the permitting process, where we review the submitted plans to make sure the design is compliant with our codes. If it is, we issue the permit and the contractor starts on the projects,” Tillema said.
First, the structure’s footings are inspected before concrete is poured to make sure rebar is set up properly and according to the design. There is also a soil inspection, and the wall on top of the footings is inspected to insure, among other things, that there will be the proper amount of concrete.
Then, a waterproofing inspection is done if there’s habitable space below grade to make sure drainage is properly designed, among other things. If there isn’t habitable space below grade, there will also be a backfill inspection.
Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing inspections will follow, and a groundwork inspection for plumbing, or any underground work before the floor or slab is poured.
A framing inspection will be done to make sure all the bracing is correct, and that the studs still have integrity after wiring and other things have been completed. After crews do insulation and sheet rock installation, a second inspection will be done.
If substantial changes to the approved design are made during construction, the contractor is responsible to let the City know so the changes can be inspected and approved.
Once contractors finish their work, a final inspection is done, encompassing virtually everything that has been done.
“Once that final inspection is done and the structure passes, we issue a certificate of occupancy or a certificate of completion if the building is already occupied,” Tillema said.
Tillema and his inspectors take their jobs seriously, and work with contractors to make sure projects are constructed safely and according to City code.
“It’s our job to enforce the codes, but we also try to apply common sense to the codes,” Tillema said. “We won’t overlook a code violation that could be a life/safety issue. It’s our responsibility to make sure that when someone walks into a building, it’s a safe environment. We take that responsibility very seriously.”