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Some cities in eastern Iowa don’t inspect buildings for structural damage

Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 12:41 AM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Regardless of their age, many buildings in eastern Iowa are not required to have inspections for structural issues.

The cities of Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, and Iowa City don’t require inspections looking at the structural integrity of a building once it is past the construction phase. These cities do require inspections of rental properties where people live, like apartments and condos.

Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Unit began looking into inspection requirements in eastern Iowa after a 12-story condo building collapsed in Surfside, Florida. On Tuesday, Florida officials increased the death toll to 12. More than 140 people are still missing. In Florida, all structures six stories and higher have to be inspected after 40 years, and then, every 10 years after that.

The Cedar Rapids Building Services Department inspects all rental housing properties every three years. But for older buildings in downtown Cedar Rapids that hold offices, not homes, there is no requirement to have a structural engineer sign off on the safety of the building once it’s built.

Kevin Ciabatti, who is the Building Services Director, said in an email, complaints the city addresses differ from structural integrity issues.

“Once construction is completed on buildings that are privately owned, any routine inspections, maintenance, or repairs of the building are the responsibility of the building owner,” Ciabatti said.

Ciabatti said even if the city believes there is a structural issue, then the responsibility is still on the owner to hire a structural engineer or licensed architect to verify the integrity of the structure and make changes if necessary.

The city of Cedar Rapids has a history of building collapses. In 1913, the Lyman Building’s back wall collapsed. At the time, the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette reported around eight men were underneath the building. The building was then renamed the Iowa Building, which partially collapsed in July 2020.

Matt Miller, who is the owner of Select Structural is a structural engineer, said his company assessed the Iowa Building for structural damage when it collapsed in 2020. He said he saw deterioration that made the building dangerous, even on the sides where the building didn’t collapse.

“We talked about some recommendations to secure those other sides,” Miller said.

Almost a year later, he said he still doesn’t know if those recommendations were followed. Miller said he thinks it’s time for the city to regularly inspect older and taller buildings because conditions surrounding the building can make them deteriorate faster.

“I can understand where the older historic buildings have a lot of underlying problems sometimes with the freeze and the thaw and just the upkeep of maintenance,” Miller said.

Miller said one problem with inspecting buildings after construction is the length of time it takes to properly inspect buildings. It’s a problem the city of Dubuque is currently facing after it completed inspecting the exterior of every commercial and industrial building in the city.

Alexis Steger, who is the director for Dubuque’s Housing and Community Development, said it might take about a year to go through those reports. She also said there are benefits to being proactive in looking for problems.

“When you’re proactive, you’re catching the leak rather than the damage that gets caused by that leak,” Steger said. “We like to be proactive and to catch things early on so that the asset people have continues to grow and doesn’t deteriorate.”

She said the city of Dubuque inspects rental properties once every five years, however, it will inspect a building more often if an owner doesn’t respond.

Iowa City inspects rental properties usually every two years. Stan Laverman, who is a senior housing inspector for Iowa City, said his department goes through nearly 20,000 rental units with five inspectors. He said the department will inspect older units every year. But, it still doesn’t reinspect buildings regularly once it is occupied and passes construction.

Laverman said he doesn’t feel the city needs more inspections because of the type of construction in Iowa City.

“The main thing is the type of construction,” Laverman said. “We don’t have that level of construction here with the concrete and the steel construction. We have a few, a lot of those buildings are newer, it would be good for buildings to inspect their structures.”

Laverman said building permit inspections would likely pick up structural issues from newer buildings.

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