Books You Should Read: Why Buildings Fall Down

People with long commutes usually come up with tricks to stay focused and alert and avoid the dangerous tendency to zone out during the drive. One trick I used to use was keeping mental track of the various construction projects I’d pass by on my way to work, noticing which piers on a new highway overpass were nearing completion, or watching steelworkers put together the complex rebar endoskeletons of a new stretch of roadway.

One project I loved to watch back in the 80s was a new high-rise going in right next to the highway, which fascinated me because of the construction method. Rather than putting together a steel frame, laying out decking, and covering each floor with concrete, the workers seemed to be fabricating each floor at ground level and then jacking them up on the vertical steel columns. I was fascinated by this because every time I passed by the floors were in a different position, spreading out vertically as the building grew.

And then one day, it just wasn’t there anymore. Where there had been columns stretching nine stories into the city sky with concrete slabs lined up ready to be jacked up into their final positions, there was just an enormous hole in the ground with a ghastly gray cloud of concrete dust rising from it. It was April 23, 1987, and what was once going to be a luxury apartment building called L’Ambience Plaza in Bridgeport, Connecticut lay pancaked into the ground, entombing the bodies of 28 construction workers.

House of Cards

The collapse of L’Ambience Plaza is just one of the many case studies contained in “Why Buildings Fall Down,” a book that Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori wrote in 1992. I stumbled upon the book not that long after it came out, and was instantly drawn to it because of my connection to the L’Ambience Plaza collapse; the job I was commuting to that day was actually as an emergency medical technician for an ambulance company in a neighboring city, so many of my friends were down in that hole trying to rescue construction workers as I was passing by, and I actually went to the scene later that day to volunteer my services. By the time I read this book I was already out of the EMS business and far more interested in the engineering aspects of what went wrong that day, and this book provided a detailed case study on L’Ambience Plaza that satisfied my curiosity about what happened that day, as well as more than a dozen other structural failures, most of which also resulted in at least some loss of life.

Each case study in the book is accompanied by simple but excellent diagrams by Kevin Woest that make it easy to understand the root cause of each failure. For L’Ambience Plaza, the threaded jack rods were found to pass through slots in the steel lifting frames rather than holes, which would have prevented them from slipping out and starting the progressive collapse that took the building down. The diagrams make this quite clear, and it’s easy to see why the mechanism was built the way it was; feeding a 1-1/4″ threaded rod through a hole is much harder to accomplish on a job site than slipping the lifting nut into a slot. But it’s also easy to see how that nut could slip out of the slot and cause a lot of trouble in the process.

Detail of lift-slab mechanism from L’Ambience Plaza. The lifting nuts fit into slots in the lifting head and slipped out under load. Source: National Bureau of Standards Report

Rust, Water, Wind, and Human Error

Corrosion and metal fatigue are also well-represented in the book, from the multiple Comet airliner crashes at the beginning of the jet age thanks to stress concentration at the corners of the plane’s square windows to the 1980 collapse of the Mianus River bridge in Connecticut — my home state comes off rather badly in the book, with a total of three failures featured — thanks in part to rust accumulation in the hanger assembly of the suspended span bridge. There’s also a section devoted to the special problems that result from dealing with Mother Nature, including the Scoharie Creek bridge collapse on the New York Thruway in 1987 — it wasn’t a good decade for structural engineers — thanks to scouring of material from under the bridge’s piers by the creek’s flood waters. And what book on structural failures would be complete without a discussion of “Galloping Gertie,” the famously flexible suspension bridge over the Tacoma Narrows that underwent rapid unplanned disassembly shortly after it opened in 1940 thanks to wind and resonance?

Not every structural failure in the book has classical engineering roots, though. Sometimes there’s a social engineering aspect to it, as was the case with the 1980 Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse in Kansas City, which was the single worst structural failure in US history in terms of lives lost prior to 9/11. That collapse, which killed 114 people and wounded over 200 more, involved a set of suspended walkways through an atrium connecting two blocks of the plush hotel, which were suspended from the ceiling by stout threaded rods. The problem was that the original design proved difficult to fabricate on the construction site, so the contractor suggested a change to the design. Unfortunately, the original engineer signed off on the change without really thinking it through; the resulting change in how the loads from the walkways were distributed eventually tore the structure apart. That one is particularly frightening to me; how many other engineers have rubber-stamped a seemingly innocuous change without running at least some calculations?

You Don’t Know Until You Know

I think what comes to mind with all these failures is just how close to the edge structural engineering can cut sometimes, especially when trying to make something innovative and beautiful. Throw enough steel and concrete at a structure and chances are pretty good you’ll get something that can stand the test of time. But if you’re trying to push the envelope and build something light and airy rather than brutally utilitarian, the engineering problem gets a bit tougher. Finding the right places to put structural members to carry the intended loads without interfering with the aesthetic design gets to be a bigger challenge, and sometimes the engineers just don’t get it right. And that’s a little scary, since we’re all constantly in, on, or near structures that may be pushing that structural envelope.

Of course, most structures stand the test of time, and catastrophic failures are few and far between. But there have been enough of them to make a book like “Why Buildings Fall Down” possible, and definitely worth reading if you’re interested in knowing what an engineer’s worst nightmare can be like. And for me, the book actually provided some closure to what I saw that day, and all the engineering questions that popped up in my mind because of it.

35 thoughts on “Books You Should Read: Why Buildings Fall Down

  1. One of the points that Henry Petrowski makes in his similar book “To Engineer Is Human” is that in general we get a new fabrication method (cast iron bridges, truss bridges, suspension bridges) and overbuild it in the way that the previous technology was poor at, and then reduce the overbuilding down progressively until we’ve experimentally determined the failure point for the new technology, kill some people doing it, and then integrate that new limit into future building. Not so great for the people involved in the testing process.
    In his book “The Checklist Manifesto”, Atul Gawande talked about how large building projects had people whose sole job it was to interface between the construction crew and the designers, so that specified construction techniques that turned out to be unwieldy in practice were modified safely. As noted in TFA, a mistake in this process is what led to the skywalk collapse, and in his book Gawande was arguing that for any complex task (he was specifically concentrating on healthcare and management for cancer treatment) we need individuals separate from implementation who have the training to see the sorts of errors that can creep in and address them as they arise.

  2. You can also add to this why we lost 17 astronauts due to suit and tie wearing conservatives.
    Only one other died due to a Canadian goose in his trainer jet flight path.
    Lets have Artemis work right.

  3. The delicate dance of the Engineer and Sub-contractor. How do you tell the know it all that their design is unbuildable. More than once when i was in the rebar business i had to give an engineer a sketch of a beam and column intersection to illustrate that cement cannot flow thru a solid wall of rebar that is touching.

  4. I genuinely don’t understand how people think the solution to
    ‘maintaining alertness while driving… ‘
    can be
    ‘pay attention to something other than driving’.

    It’s madness.

    Phone calls?
    Audio books?
    A conversation with a passenger?

    If you aren’t paying attention to driving, you aren’t PAYING ATTENTION to driving.

    1. That’s why prefer public transport over individual transport.

      Some people simply don’t have what it takes to drive a car.
      Some also turn from a friendly pedestrian into an egoistic maniac once behind the
      automobile’s steering wheel.

      A personality test/psychology test/stress test should be part of any driver’s license exam. IMHO.

      1. Maybe people should be required to ride a bike once in a while too. Amazing how many drivers are angry at the mere existence of bicycles and the smaller minority that are actively hostile. Not often. But memorable.

      2. There was a 1980’s short scifi story about this, about how the driving test was a computer simulation that had the driver hit/run over a child, and if the person taking the test still wanted a driver’s license immediately afterwards they got drug off to a psych ward.

        1. Inspired GTA and Carmagedon!

          Also ‘Vette, the ancient driving game that had real SF map. Exploit was to go the whole way on the sidewalks. Pedestrians were massless. Good fun. Too bad no cyclists.

  5. “That one is particularly frightening to me; how many other engineers have rubber-stamped a seemingly innocuous change without running at least some calculations?”

    Wonder if the introduction of computers has changed any of that?

  6. Reminds me of the Sunset Limited disaster. It was caused by human error. The bridge was originally built to be pivoting for tall ship to pass through but that part was never used and eventually forgotten until barge lost in the fog bumped into the bridge pillar, knocking the tracks off alignment. But since the tracks weren’t broken, train engineer never had any indication there was a problem until crossing the bridge and crashed.

    I wonder if that is explained in the book? The TV shows Seconds from Disaster does a nice job explaining many of the major disasters including Sunset Limited, Hyatt collapse, Concorde fire, the 2 space shuttles, etc.

    1. Not sure how good an audio book would be. There’s pretty diagrams included in this article, and I’m STILL not sure where the lifting nuts are in the scheme of things.
      The nuts in the video about Hyatt Regency are easier to see, but the animation helps (compared to static images). A purely spoken description would be much less clear.

    1. Not only have I worked at the Skyline complex for many years (late 90s) I also worked with someone who was in the building during the collapse. Miller and Long forever became know as Killer and Long after that collapse(at least to ones in the trades)

  7. Here’s another one to add to the book that’s just getting underway: the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. The new tower sank 9″ (22cm) this weekend.

    Presumably the structure’s stability was not helped by a new project: the engineering firm added another above ground floor mid-construction.

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