With rescue efforts suspended at the disastrous condominium collapse in Miami, residents across the area are flooding local governments with the same question: could it happen here?

Santa Monica building official Ara Sargsyan said without knowing the exact cause of the Champlain Towers disaster, it’s impossible to rule out a freak accident anywhere, even in Santa Monica. However, he said residents should take comfort in the strength of local construction codes but also take the initiative to verify maintenance in private buildings.

Sargsyan said that compared to codes in Florida, California codes are more restrictive due to concerns about seismic safety. He said that there are specific building requirements in other states that California does not address, items such as snow loads in cold climates or hurricane mandates in the south, but that broadly speaking California rules are stronger than many states, Los Angeles County rules tighten the state requirements and Santa Monica in specific has additional layers of restriction on building codes.

“When I’m looking from this perspective, then I can easily say that in our area … in Santa Monica, our codes are stronger. I don’t want to say ‘better’ but for the lack of a better word maybe better than outside of this area, or outside of California,” he said.

He said Santa Monica asks for more detailed geotechnical reports than some neighboring cities and cited the city’s Seismic Retrofit program as covering more kinds of buildings than similar programs in the area.

However, Sargsyan said the codes are only helpful if everyone follows the rules.

“Sometimes owners think that it’s a minor thing they can do without permits themselves, or just not getting permits and not getting the work inspected,” he said.

However, even minor work could have an unintended consequence and after the fact discovery isn’t always enough to identify problems.

“So I would urge and encourage every single building owner in Santa Monica and tenants, make sure that every work is done with permits,” he said.

Work inspections for tenant improvements or new work in an existing building are also an opportunity for officials to enter structures that may have originally been inspected years earlier. Those inspections can identify previously unknown issues but they only occur when construction is done legally.

“But if work is done without inspection, and there is some damage and it’s fixed by the owner without getting any permits, we have no access to that area and we will not know unless someone brings it to our attention,” he said.

Complaint-based inspections are an important part of the safety system because there are no government mandates for ongoing safety inspections. Some specific elements of a building are subject to regular inspection, such as balconies, but officials rely on residents to bring potential problems to light and on property owners to maintain a safe environment.

“There is no such program annually or biannually to go to every apartment building or condominium building,” he said. “It is anticipated that the building owners maintain the buildings and do all the work that is required.”

He said it’s possible a building can be built to code and still experience problems if it’s not managed properly.

“Of course, if there is no adequate building maintenance, or there is a workmanship, quality or any failure, it could be even from impact damage, or fatigue or any other issue throughout time, any corrosion or any other existence of any of these components. It is possible to happen at any location.”

editor@smdp.com