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Wall Collapse Spurs Calls for Building-Code Reviews

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A finding that design flaws were responsible for the collapse of a lunchroom wall at a Newburgh, N.Y., school hit by severe winds has prompted some experts to suggest that states and school districts need to review their construction-monitoring procedures.

The wall that toppled at East Coldenham Elementary School during the storm on Nov. 16, killing nine children and injuring more than a dozen, had not been properly braced, a state report concluded.

Although virtually every school today is constructed according to some building code, safety experts say that assessing the structural safety of schools is difficult because districts operate under a wide variety of codes and code-enforcement mechanisms.

And many schools, they note, were built before current regulations were in effect.

About two-thirds of the states have statewide building codes that apply schools, according to Marla B. McIntyre, director of communications for the National Conference of States on Building Codes and Standards.

Many of the states that do not have statewide codes, she said, have other regulations pertaining to the construction of public buildings.

But those criteria "vary from state to state and even within the states," Ms. McIntyre noted, adding that some schools still must conform only to county or local building codes.

"There has definitely been a trend toward statewide building codes,'' she added. "When you have conformity and efficiency in your building departments, you are going to have safer buildings."

Even when building codes are strict, Ms. McIntyre said, "there is no guarantee that a contractor will abide by a code unless there is adequate enforcement." The thoroughness of enforcement can vary significantly according to location.

Kenneth M. Schoonover, manager of technical services for Building Officials and Code Administrators International, an organization that promotes one of several model building codes used by most states and localities, said municipalities short of resources occasionally cut back on code enforcement or experiment with "affidavit" systems that assign responsibility for safe design to architects.

In addition to reexamining construction-oversight mechanisms, states should consider adopting tougher building codes for schools in light of the Newburgh disaster, argued Kishor C. Mehta, an expert on tornado-related building damage.

Mr. Mehta, a professor of civil engineering at Texas Tech University, said tornado-prone states may wish to follow the example of earthquake-prone states in building schools with additional wall reinforcements.

Designed for 45 M.P.H.

The wall at Newburgh's East Coldenham School, which was hit by winds of nearly 100 miles per hour, had not been designed to withstand winds of more than 45 m.p.h., according to independent findings released by a special investigative panel of the New York State Disaster Preparedness Commission. (See Education Week, Jan. 24, 1990.)

The panel's report said the wall, given normal safety features, should have been able to resist winds as great as 120 m.p.h. under the industry standards at the time of the school's construction in 1960. The wall was a masonry structure 20 feet long and 12 feet, 8 inches high, bordered on the top and sides by a series of metal-framed windows.

New York adopted a building code for schools in 1985, and is one of few states with a statewide code for all buildings.

At the recommendation of the state investigators, the state education department is now requiring architects to sign a checklist explicitly assuring the structural integrity of the schools they design.

Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol has said he also favors passage of a law recommended by the panel that would require periodic structural inspections of schools, probably every 5 or 10 years.

The panel also urged the state to amend its building rules to include the wind-strength requirements of the American National Standards Institute, thereby focusing more attention on wind resistance.

An independent weather service hired by the state concluded that the East Coldenham School had been hit by severe downburst of air generated by storms racing through the area. The National Weather Service concluded that the building had been hit by a small tornado.

The panel also has urged state and local agencies to upgrade their emergency-alert systems in light of a finding that officials at East Coldenham were unaware of a tornado watch that had been issued by the National Weather Service three hours before high winds caused the wall to collapse.

Stricter School Standards?

Mr. Mehta of Texas Tech University, who has investigated the aftermath of several tornadoes for the National Research Council's committee on natural disasters, said the East Coldenham tragedy suggests the need for stricter codes governing the ability of schools to withstand storms.

"Being public buildings where children are involved, they need to be made a little stronger than office buildings and shopping centers," he argued.

Noting that "a lot of schools are made of concrete block, and it is the collapse of those blocks that causes the injuries and fatalities,'' Mr. Mehta asserted that districts throughout the country should follow the lead of earthquake-prone states in using vertical steel reinforcements and masonry grouting to strengthen exterior walls against collapse.

Such improvements, he said, would add less than 5 percent to the final cost of schools. As a more cost-effective measure, Mr. Mehta suggested that schools be built with interior rooms or hallways designed for use as tornado shelters.

He said districts also may wish to weigh down or anchor cafeteria and gymnasium roofs, which often are torn off or severely damaged in storms.

Era of 'Cheap Construction'

A study issued by the Education Writers Association last April estimated that more than 3 percent of the nation's school buildings were structurally unsound.

The report, based on information on one-half of all public-school buildings, as supplied by the states, also noted that 61 percent of the buildings in use were constructed during the 1950's and 1960's, "generally a time of rapid and cheap construction."

To prevent the construction of new schools that are unsafe, many states now require districts to submit their construction plans to state agencies for review.

A 1987 survey by the American Institute of Architects' committee on architecture for education found that 46 states required a state review of school-construction documents by education departments and other agencies. But many of the review processes focused primarily on classroom size and questions of space, rather than structural safety.

At the time of the survey, 24 states required state field inspections of school construction, while 3 others required that such inspections be done by localities. Twenty-two states required state approval of final construction, and 10 others required final inspection by localities.

According to the study, school construction was required to conform to special seismic requirements in 9 states, special wind requirements in 15, special snow requirements in 16, and special flood requirements in 15. Forty-three states had special fire-safety requirements that governed schools.

Engineering Flaws

The East Coldenham collapse, meanwhile, has focused attention on design problems that may exist in schools elsewhere.

A report prepared for the New York investigation by an engineering consulting firm, Thornton-Tomasetti, said the Newburgh school's cafeteria wall "was not given proper engineering attention," probably because it was not "load-bearing," or designed to be part of the structure holding up the roof.

Peter Slocum, a spokesman for the state disaster-preparedness agency, said other schools around the state may have similar design flaws, because the panel's investigators "said it is not uncommon for parts of a structure which are not expected to be load-bearing to be overlooked in this way." The panel recommended that various building authorities be alerted to the potential hazard.

Christopher Carpenter, a spokesman for the education department, said the state had relied on the architect's general assurance of structural integrity at the time East Coldenham Elementary School was built.

Education-department officials were reviewing school plans for adequate space and other considerations at that time and continue to do so today, Mr. Slocum of the disaster-preparedness agency said. But "with one architect on staff and something like 2,000 plans being reviewed each year," he added, "you can imagine that they do not have the time or expertise to check the strength calculations of the walls."

The investigators called on the state to request that architects and engineering consultants more clearly delineate responsibility for design. They noted that responsibility for the East Coldenham cafeteria wall could not be clearly ascertained from the construction documents.

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