Raleigh condo building that collapsed Saturday wasn’t ready to withstand high winds, builder says

jprice@newsobserver.comJanuary 13, 2014 

— The Brier Creek condominium building that collapsed in a now-viral video filmed during the violent wind storm Saturday wasn’t close enough to completion to withstand the record-breaking gust that hit it, according to the builder.

The video, shot by professional wildlife photographer Ed Braz from an adjacent building where he lives, shows part of the building move sideways, then slump into a pile of splintered wood. It was featured on The Weather Channel, Weather.com, YouTube and local news websites, including newsobserver.com. By Monday afternoon, it had been viewed online more than 100,000 times.

Some viewers left snarky comments about shoddy construction. But Pennsylvania-based Toll Brothers, one of the nation’s largest builders, said that it was unfair to judge the quality of its building by the damage because construction wasn’t complete.

“Structures that are in such an early phase of construction, such as the portion of the building at issue here which did not yet have the benefit of all of the intended structural bracings and support, are not capable of withstanding the extreme (80+ mph) winds that were encountered on Saturday,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Toll Brothers’ explanation is credible because substantially unfinished buildings are obviously not as sturdy and don’t yet meet the required codes that say they’re safe to live in, said Ian Giammanco, a research scientist with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, which is an insurance-industry-funded nonprofit that studies how to make homes and commercial buildings less susceptible to damage.

If structural connections inside, such as those that firmly attach the roof to the walls or the walls to the foundation, hadn’t been completed, Giammanco said, that would make it easier for wind to damage the building.

Also, it’s likely that the various openings – such as those for the windows, which hadn’t been installed yet – were a major contributor to the collapse, he said. Often when there is damage to a structure from high winds, it’s worsened when an opening is created by the loss of, say, a door or garage door, which allows the wind to funnel inside and then push outward.

That similar or even identical – but completed – buildings all around it weren’t affected supports the idea that the only thing wrong with the building is that it wasn’t far enough along to handle the wind, Giammanco said.

The part of the building that collapsed shared a section of roof with six other units that clearly were closer to completion, with windows and roofing installed. The affected building simply pulled away, leaving its sturdier, more complete sibling intact. On Monday afternoon, one construction crew was cleaning up the debris and another was continuing work on the standing part of the building, which showed little damage.

Winds notched at 86 mph

One neighbor said that the collapse didn’t make him worry about the safety of his own building.

“I was surprised that it went down,” said David March. “But in fairness to Toll Brothers, all you have to do is look around, and there is no damage to any of the other buildings – except maybe a shingle here or there, or a little piece of eave.”

Raleigh is on a dividing line for building codes. Houses built on the east side of that line must withstand winds of 100 mph; those to the west must be able to handle winds up to 90 mph, Giammanco said. The higher number is driven by likely exposure to tropical storms coming ashore, while the lower number is meant to address nothing greater than winds generated by severe thunderstorms such as those Saturday.

The winds were extraordinary: A gust measured at Raleigh-Durham International Airport just a couple of miles away was clocked at 86 mph. That’s either the highest or second-highest wind speed on record there, said Jonathan Blaes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Raleigh office. Weather experts, he said, were still trying to figure out whether a report of 90 mph during a hurricane in 1954 was official or just an estimate.

The violent gusts were caused by an irregular line of thunderstorms moving east ahead of a cold front. They were fueled by the energy in unusually warm and humid air, along with high winds a few thousand feet up.

The ragged nature of the line of storms created notches between them that channeled especially high winds, sometimes affecting areas smaller than a neighborhood, Baes said.

The pros at the National Weather Service – whose jobs include evaluating storm damage – played the video again and again, studying how the building fell. It was unusual, Baes said, because people tend to pay attention to tornadoes and track them with video cameras, but they rarely are filming at just the right moment when straightforward strong winds take down a structure.

The video spread rapidly. March, the neighbor of the fallen condos, said he was in the nearby golf clubhouse cleaning up after a round when the building was destroyed. By the time he got to his car, a neighbor had emailed it to him.

Braz, who is from South Africa, is a professional, but he said getting that video by casually shooting out his window was lucky.

“There was this fierce storm, and we don’t get them like that in South Africa,” he said. “I was just basically trying to document what it looked like.”

Video: Ed Braz's video that went viral of a building under construction collapsing in high winds when a severe storm passed through the Raleigh on Saturday.

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