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Stricter standards, requirements seen in construction of new island condos

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of December 21, 2023)

The collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside two and a half years sent shock waves through the Florida condo market, raising fears of additional collapses in older residential buildings.

But stricter inspection and repair requirements put in place in 2022, a year after the disaster, have provided some sense of security for residents in older condos – and new condos recently built or under construction in 32963 are far more structurally sound than the 12-story building that suddenly crumbled to the ground on Miami’s barrier island in June 2021.

Take the new oceanfront condominium at 30 Indigo Lane next to Tracking Station Park at the northern edge of the City of Vero Beach.

The shell of this 37,000-square-foot building is mostly complete and many of its structural elements can still be seen from the park. It will contain a garage level and three residential levels with six luxury condos, two per floor, and it could not be much more precisely planned and thoroughly engineered if it were a 100-story tower in Manhattan or a spacecraft destined for Mars.

The county’s file on the building is more than 600 pages long, composed of detailed architectural and engineering drawings, photographs, firsthand reports of site conditions and inspections, and page after page of small-print, single-spaced specifications and requirements.

An eminent architect and six (count ’em, six) engineering firms have been involved in designing and building the concrete and steel structure – drawing plans, reviewing plans, revising plans, checking to make sure all materials meet detailed specifications, and that each structural element is the size and strength it is supposed to be and in the precise location shown on the plans.

“There is an enormous amount of design expertise, review and inspection on the structure by our engineers,” said Yane Zana, president of project developer Coastmark.

Besides the small army of private sector engineers, many of them highly specialized, the county has its own platoons of plan reviewers and inspectors.

County building department chief Scott McAdam told Vero Beach 32963 on Monday that he has nine building inspectors who are county employees along with seven more contracted inspectors to keep track of construction quality and compliance in Indian River County.

That is a stark contrast with The City of Surfside, which had one part-time inspector that it shared with two other cities when Champlain Towers South was built in 1981 – not to mention a developer wanted and eventually convicted on tax evasion charges by Canadian authorities, and-an architect who had his license suspended for six months two years before the doomed tower was built for designing “a grossly inadequate” structure that collapsed in high winds.

The project’s structural engineer “had been responsible for inspections on a $5 million parking garage in Coral Gables a few years earlier, where officials later found that the walls in the building lacked steel reinforcing rods that would prevent cars from crashing through,” according to The New York Times.

“Indian River County is very adept at reviewing and inspecting structural elements of buildings,” said Zana. “They take it very seriously and if it doesn’t pass, they don’t let you pour. They will stop you in your tracks.”

“We inspect all phases of the construction per compliance with the approved plans and the Florida Building Code” – which has been toughened up numerous times since Surfside was built.

“This involves multiple inspection types related to building, mechanical, plumbing, electrical systems and construction elements,” McAdam said, adding that his team will conduct between 50 and 100 individual inspections at 30 Indigo Lane.

The basic structure of the building is simple in one sense. There is a foundation of poured-in-place concrete pilings extending 30 feet or more below grade and loaded with steel. Those piles are tied together with heavy structural elements and fastened securely to the garage floor slab – which is heavily laced with exactly the right size and number of steel reinforcing bars specified by the structural engineer, Melbourne-based MK Structural Engineering.

Besides regular rebar as much as 1¼ inches in diameter, the slab is further reinforced with a precisely engineered network of post-tension cables, steel that is stretched like a rubber band after concrete is poured, adding greatly to the slab’s structural strength.

The three poured-in-place floor slabs above the garage and the concrete roof also have post-tension steel, which allows for wider unsupported spans and thinner slabs that increase ceiling heights in the luxury condos.

Steel reinforced concrete columns and sheer walls support the successive floors and roof, forming an unshakable framework that extends from 30 feet below grade to about 45 feet above. The spaces between the columns on the exterior walls are filled with concrete blocks, many of which are filled with more concrete and steel.

The process begins with a soils engineer, from KSM Engineering and Testing in this case, who reports in great detail the stability and load-bearing characteristics of the dirt and sand at the site. Boring dozens of holes and producing a 60-page report. Among other findings, KSM noted a “very dense layer of material” 30 feet below grade – marl – which “greatly increases the [load bearing] capacity of the piles.”

This soils information was incorporated into the site plan produced by Vero engineering firm Schulke, Bittle and Stoddard and the foundation plan designed by MK Engineering.

So, there is a soils engineer, a civil engineer, a structural engineer, and a consulting engineer involved before a cupful of concrete is poured and all the structural work is overseen in addition by a threshold engineer hired by Zana. Also called a special inspector, this commanding figure checks and verifies every major element of construction.

Universal Engineering Sciences is the threshold engineer for 30 Indigo Lane and the rest of the Indigo development. It reviews the foundation plan, inspects the placement of steel in the auger hole where the pile goes, and observes the pour, along with a county inspector.

“Every pour, for the foundation, columns, sheer walls and block fills, there is a threshold engineer and county inspector there to make sure everything is correct,” said Zana. In addition, all the concrete is inspected and tested.

“They test it to make sure it hasn’t been on the truck too long and has the right compressive strength,” Zana added. The strength of concrete is described in terms of PSI, or pounds per square inch. A standard strength in residential construction is 3000 PSI, meaning that 3,000 pounds could bear on one square inch of the material without crushing it.

“Our concrete is much higher PSI than that,” Zana said, a statement supported by specs in the project planning documents.

Universal Engineering Sciences submits a report on each pour to the county certifying that everything was properly prepared and that the pour was done in accordance with the structural plan. The company’s engineer keeps a complete log of all concrete pours and structural inspections at the site which it summits as a final threshold report when the project is complete.

A sense of the care taken throughout the project is provided by a whole other set of inspections that come under the threshold engineer’s purview.

Before an elevated slab can be poured, it must be formed up with plywood and lumber, which in turn has to be supported to bear the weight of the wet concrete by steel shoring supports. All of that is as carefully engineered as everything else.

“The structural engineer creates a shoring plan that is sent to the shoring company,” Zana said. “Their engineer reviews it and provides the shores, which we set up. They and the threshold engineer inspect it before the pour.”

30 Indigo Lane is one of two identical condominium buildings that will be built at Indigo Vero Beach, a project developed by Coastmark on the former site of a marine lab operated by Florida Institute of Technology that closed in 2017.

Zana bought the property in 2020 for $6 million and created a site plan that includes seven oceanfront villas and five ocean-view villas as well as the two condo buildings, for a total of 24 units.

Only one condo remains available for purchase, a four bedroom, 4.5-bath oceanfront unit offered for $4,195,000.

Zana is working on a second island project, Blue at 8050, a few miles north of Indigo in Indian River Shores. Visible from A1A, across from The Strand subdivision, it consists of four, four-story condo buildings and a large clubhouse and swimming pool, all as carefully engineered and built as the two condos at Indigo.

As at Indigo, Zana is nearly sold out at Blue, with just one unit left for sale, a non-oceanfront apartment listed for $2,395,000. Two towers are complete with owners in residence, one is nearing completion, and one is still under construction. Zana expects to be done with the project by the end of next year.

The towers at Blue were designed to contain six units in each building, but Zana sold three double units, where buyers purchased a whole 6,600- square-foot floor. That makes the unit count 21 instead of 24 and puts the total number of condos Zana is developing at the two projects at 33.

Between them, the six condo towers total more than 160,000 square feet of powerfully engineered space, including garages, which is unlikely to collapse anytime soon.

“With the amount of review and inspections, I think they are good,” Zana said, looking at one of his towers with a smile. “I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere!”