lotus riverside building failure  sprinkler_head_web

A safety failure is a functional failure that creates a hazard [a]. This type of failure can include structural failures, foundation failures, and the failure of life safety mechanisms.

Life safety mechanisms are tools implemented in buildings to protect and evacuate building occupants, in the case of emergencies such as fires, earthquakes, or power outages [b]. Life safety systems include fire suppression systems such as smoke detectors, automated calls to fire departments, fire sprinklers (image 2), the shutdown of ventilation compartments, electric pumps that provide the required water pressure for a sprinkler and gas-powered electric generators [c]. To be considered a safety failure, these mechanisms only have to not function as intended, rather than suffer a complete malfunction, then lead to a hazardous situation [a]. This distinction is shown by a 2008 case study in which a fire consumed a two-story motel. The deluge system in place activated but was unable to contain the spread of the flames, not functioning as intended, and resulting in the collapse of the roof and $10 million in damages [d].

Structural failure refers to structural members yielding under stress, poor material choice, or construction error [e].  A foundation failure is the cracking or erosion of the foundation, causing damage to the building’s components or the potential collapse of the building [f]. A notable structural failure is the facade failure of the Aon Center in Chicago in which a slab cladding the building detached and smashed into a house below. A notable foundation failure is the Lotus Riverside apartment complex in Shanghai, China, when earth moved from the creation of an underground garage and relocated into an adjacent river led to the collapse of the river bank and the flooding of the Lotus Riverside’s foundation, causing it to collapse (image 1) [h].

The job of ensuring the integrity of a structure is that of the structural engineer [i]. A safety engineer is concerned with the performance of life safety systems, even when their components fail [j].

[a]: “Failure Mechanisms in Building Construction.” David H. Nicastro. The American Society of Civil Engineers. Print.