School Climate & Safety

N.Y. School Roof Collapse Prompts Warning

By Joetta L. Sack — September 21, 2004 2 min read
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New York state officials are advising districts to inspect the roofs of school buildings, following the recent collapse of an elementary school roof that is being blamed on faulty steel roofing joists.

Read the state advisory sent to district superintendents following the collapse of the roof at Taft Elementary School.

A large portion of the roof at Taft Elementary School, a 44-year-old structure in Washingtonville, N.Y., collapsed into a classroom on Aug. 1. The school had been closed for the summer. If classes had been in session, there likely would have been serious injuries, state officials said in a report on the incident.

The massive structural failure was blamed on a particular type of steel joist and the fact that it had deteriorated because of a leaky roof.

National experts say the collapse is an extreme example of the need for routine structural inspections and maintenance for school buildings.

“It’s very fortunate the district learned this lesson with an empty building,” said Thomas A. Kube, the executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International in Scottsdale, Ariz.

According to New York authorities, a structural engineer has determined that the structural steel “U” joists, Type SJ, collapsed because of long-term water exposure from a roof leak.

The plaster ceiling of the classroom involved, however, showed no sign of a roof leak or other moisture problems, according to the report.

Washingtonville Superintendent William J. Swart said the building had undergone yearly inspections, and added that construction was also under way on a new roof.

As of late last week, the 730-student Taft Elementary was scheduled to reopen Sept. 7, two days behind schedule.

District officials met with parents and teachers last week for a walk-through of the building and have posted 12 reports from structural engineers assuring them of its safety. “I think we’re in a good position to open without any major concerns,” Mr. Swart said.

Widely Used

Because of “the sudden and catastrophic nature of the failure,” a letter from the state to superintendents and safety officers across New York advises them to review their buildings for the same type of roof construction. If they find the same steel U joists, or are not sure, they should consult a structural engineer.

Type SJ joists were manufactured from about 1900 to the late 1950s, but likely were used in school construction for several years afterward. The joist is a bar with a U-shaped channel at the top, which apparently allowed water to sit and cause deterioration to reach the point of collapse at Taft Elementary School.

Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the New York state education department, said districts in the state had already been required to inspect each school building annually, with a detailed inspection every five years, and report their findings to the state. He did not foresee any changes.

Mr. Kube of the facility planners’ group, though, said the state’s letter was an “understatement.” He said he planned to send the information to his group’s members.

“This could be a freak thing that happened,” he said. But, he added, “there were a lot of buildings in that time frame, and there probably are other examples that need to be looked at carefully.”

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