Four Lessons from the Worst Catastrophic Roofing Errors

From dog shaming to funny videos, it seems to be human nature to giggle at other people’s mistakes. But a dog that ate the toddler’s crayons and is now pooping rainbows is one thing. Roof management mistakes can be dangerous, inconvenient and incredibly expensive. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest roofing disasters of the last few years and see what we can learn from them:

1. Risk vs. Reward

When Hurricane Wilma roared into Miami-Dade County, Florida, most people thought the area was prepared. After all, building codes at the time required the ability to withstand winds of 146 mph, significantly faster than Wilma’s highest recorded winds. Imagine a building owner’s surprise when his roof peeled right off the building. As it turned out, the problem wasn’t with the roof itself but with the way it was secured—or wasn’t secured—to the walls. Despite the fact that building codes required a continuous cleat, there wasn’t one in use. In an attempt to save the $3,000 it would have cost to use the continuous cleat, the building owner set himself up to sustain damages of around $400,000. From a roof management risk versus reward perspective, that decision was a really big “oops”.

2. Don’t Cut Corners

A building in North Carolina also lost its roof to high winds. The failure was caused by insufficient anchoring of the roof. During construction, the wood blocking for the roof had been attached directly to the top row of bricks. When the building was reconstructed, the new design called fora bond beam and anchor bolts. Those simple adjustments created a roof that was ready to withstand winds much higher than those that spelled doom for the original roof.

3. Never Run Before You Can Walk

Green roofs are all the rage, and that trend is practically guaranteed to continue for years to come. However, businesses have been incorporating sustainability into their plans so quickly there hasn’t always been time to identify best practices. Sloped green roofs are a good example. The problem with these is a lack of proper drainage and an inadequate growing medium. When those two ingredients are combined with rain or snow, the result can be a load that far exceeds the weight the roof is designed to handle, which can lead to leaks, mudslides and, in the worst cases, roof collapse. For example, in St. Charles, Ill., a green roof collapsed after a heavy snowstorm, causing extensive (and expensive) damage to the facility.

4. Not All Materials Are Equal

During the Big Dig construction project in Boston, a section of ceiling collapsed, killing one person and halting work (and causing traffic backups) for nearly a year. The problem was deemed to be the system of anchors and epoxy used in the construction process. Or, more accurately, the inadequacy of those items. The anchors were shorter than required, and the epoxy used to fasten the anchors to the concrete was below standards. As with the roof damaged by Hurricane Wilma, this is a situation in which shortcuts—in this case, subpar materials—resulted in costs that far exceeded what it would have cost to do the job right from the beginning.

The most striking thing about these catastrophic roof management failures is that the factors that led to them aren’t all that unusual. The losses weren’t the result of inconceivably stupid mistakes that leave the industry asking, “How could that have happened?” What’s striking is that shortcuts like these are far too common. It’s just that, most of the time, nothing happens. The roof never fails, so the shortcuts are never discovered.

However, when something does go wrong, careers are destroyed, businesses and individuals go bankrupt, and lives are lost or ruined. Don’t gamble with shortcuts when it comes to roof management. It’s possible that nothing will ever go wrong. If it does, however, things will never be the same and it’s just not worth it.

About Marion McKnight

Marion McKnight is vice president of Operations at Houston-based PHP Systems/Design. He has been responsible for overseeing core business and operational functions for more than 20 years.

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