AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin is working to “determine [its] steps forward in addressing existing buildings” following KXAN questions about its “reactive” approach to building inspections and a Miami-area condo collapse in June that killed 98 people.
“I appreciate the opportunity to be part of these discussions to determine our steps forward in addressing existing buildings,” said Austin Building Official Beth Culver, “as we explore the challenges and responsibilities that we all have for building safety.”
On Tuesday, Culver and Austin Assistant Code Director Elaine Garrett asked to speak at a virtual meeting of the International Code Council. The ICC, which sets building safety standards worldwide, is working to prevent another disaster. The organization is drafting new safety guidelines, including the frequency of residential inspections, which are due out in January.
The ICC previously told KXAN proactive inspections are “absolutely critical.”
“Keep in our thoughts the 98 people who perished,” said Sara Yerkes with the ICC.
The ICC says recent meetings with building experts from across the country highlighted “the need for periodic” inspections of buildings. The condo collapse became “kind of an awakening for most people,” said Mike Pfeiffer with the ICC.
While there are calls for more proactive inspections, Garrett defended the city’s reactive approach.
“We are not entirely proactive at all,” said Garrett. “We respond to complaints that come in from the community.”
The challenge, she said, comes down to staffing. The increased construction, new high-rises and the number of buildings over 40 years old present “major challenges.”
“We’re seeing more and more construction here in Austin,” she said, “which is causing major challenges for us.”
In the last year, Austin Code Department received more than 28,000 complaints, according to Garrett. The city prioritizes which ones to handle first based on severity.
“Austin faces the challenge of staffing for the number of complaints received,” she said in response to a KXAN question about whether the city will reconsider its reactive approach. “We have moved toward some proactive inspections for specific communities that have identified repeated concerns.”
The ICC says its guidelines will not be “one-size-fits-all.” The organization hopes its recommendations will be adopted by cities everywhere, including Austin.
Some experts called for periodic inspections of at-risk buildings and those that are most vulnerable. The Structural Engineers Association of Texas, based in Austin, says if that happens those findings need to be reported to building officials to ensure any safety issues found are fixed.
“There needs to be some teeth behind this to be effective,” said Brad Cheshire with the SEAoT. “I think that is a direction that a lot of jurisdictions will want to head.”
The ICC’s final guideline recommendations could be published in the next six months.
“We are all committed to finding solutions that work,” said Yerkes, “so we don’t have any more catastrophic collapses of existing buildings.”