The curious case of structural failures


Structural failure in the UK isn’t an all too common occurrence. However, when it does happen, it is often with catastrophic consequences. IGI Global defines Structural Failure as the loss of a structures’ load-carrying capacity, for example, when a house is reduced to rubble. This happens when the strength of the material/structure is tested to excess which leads to deformation or a fracture and ultimately, structural failure. Engineers endeavour to ensure that structural failure is localised so that a collapse of one ceiling doesn’t lead to a whole skyscraper falling down. However, this doesn’t always prove to be the case. In this article, I will analyse recent examples of structural failure and the modern prevention methods that Structural Engineers are using to combat this.

This blog was inspired by an article I recently read regarding a mall in Mexico City that collapsed before the entirety of the structure was constructed. The Artz Pedregal Shopping Center was partially opened on 9th March and houses predominantly luxury retailers such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Dior. This was a mixed-use development was 4 storeys high and supported by a number of cantilevers. It has been suggested that the structure collapsed due to the roof garden, not adhering to building standards or due to poor subsoil. Luckily no-one was injured, despite the proximity to the highway and local footpaths. Developers in Mexico City are known to cut costs in order to maximise profits, hence this story shouldn’t be a shock. However there are also similar stories coming out of more developed and regulated countries and unfortunately, the outcome is often far more deadly.

A case study you may be more familiar with is the collapse of the Florida International University Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge collapsed onto the Tamiami Trail Road on March 15th 2018 at 1:47 pm. The bridge failed during a post-tension rod adjustment, which crushed 8 vehicles, resulting in 6 fatalities. There is still no confirmed cause for the collapse, despite a number of theories being investigated. Neil Hawkins from the University of Illinois speculates that the modern take on an old-fashioned truss design has not been thoroughly tested prior to construction, hence the load strength and stability of the bridge may have been questionable. This also wasn’t aided by a last minute design alteration which could have caused structural miscalculations.

As soon as we started building structures we created the risk of Structural Failure, however, this has been mitigated over time due to more stringent building regulations and a better understanding of construction and engineering principles. Dom Kaminetzky claimed that clear communication of design helps to aid careful construction. 40 years later, the introduction of Building Information Modelling has helped connect the whole supply chain. Lee and Sternberg have also suggested implementing destructive or demolition testing. There are facilities in place to test experimental structures from natural occurrences such as earthquakes, however new designs aren’t always tested to the same extent and it means that we rely upon engineering principles rather than engineering ‘in practice’. They also state that this could help to mitigate the threat of terrorism as we would know how strong bridges would need to be to withstand a small-scale blast. It is unlikely that Structural Failure will be completely prevented, however, we need to be aware of the potential threat and understand how to effectively reduce the likelihood and impact it causes.


Note: This blog was written before the dam collapse disaster in Laos. But this shows how catastrophic ‘man-made’ disasters can be and how incredibly important structural integrity is throughout the construction process and into completion. 

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I joined Mattinson Partnership in September 2016, having graduated from Queen Mary, University of London with a BSc (Hons) in Environmental Science. I started off working as a resourcer within Dominic’s Built Environment team and I was promoted to Consultant in the Spring of 2017. I now cover BIM, Structural and Civil Engineering. My background is in insurance sales, where I gained experience in client and customer relations, which I have built upon in my time in recruitment. In my spare time I like to stay active and I am known amongst my peers as a fantasy football guru.



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