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    Homeowners to be told of houses' flaws

    Although the state disciplined engineers, in the past buyers were not told their homes could fail in high winds.

    By COLLINS CONNER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 23, 2002

    In the past two years, the state has disciplined six Florida engineers named in a 1999 St. Petersburg Times report on flawed house designs.

    The designs approved by those engineers -- eight models built repeatedly across the state -- aren't up to code, the state's experts found. If the builders followed the blueprints, the houses could fail in high winds.

    But nobody told local building officials that homes in their jurisdiction likely don't meet code. Nobody told the builders their designs were flawed. And nobody told the home buyers, such as Pasco resident Bruce Hendrickson, that if a hurricane threatens, they might need to flee their houses.

    That lack of notification is about to change.

    The Florida Board of Professional Engineers agreed last week to notify county building departments when it files an administrative complaint against an engineer that involves public safety and health. "If there's a structural problem or a life-safety issue, we would forward the complaint," said Natalie Lowe, the board's administrator.

    Hendrickson was dumbstruck on hearing that the state had found his house design was flawed; in the two years since he bought his Lennar house, he had "been very satisfied," Hendrickson said.

    But, according to the engineering board's expert, the design of Hendrickson's home -- variously called a "Madison" model or a "Captiva" -- "contained structural deficiencies." Those problems included gable-end bracing that "will not resist" hurricane-force winds.

    In Hendrickson's Stagecoach subdivision, there are "probably 50 or 60 more of the same model" as his house, Hendrickson said.

    Lennar president Stuart Miller said the engineering calculations for the model home were reviewed by two experts, who served on the Times' engineering panel in 1999. Those experts said the houses didn't need repairs, Miller said, because they "were built to code in the first place."

    None of the Lennar owners were alerted to the design flaws found by the FBPE in the model's blueprints.

    If you want to know why this matters, ask Miami attorney James E. McDonald. He represents South Florida condominium owners, who just learned their 15-year-old homes don't meet code and might not withstand hurricane-force winds.

    "Where do you begin on something like this?" McDonald asks. "Who is really out there making sure that people get homes that are built according to good engineering and architectural principles and built according to plan?"

    In March, Miami-Dade building department director Charles Danger issued notices to the 458 condo owners, giving them six months to make the costly repairs.

    In the meantime, if a hurricane comes, Danger told them, "I'd beg you to take refuge somewhere else."

    * * *

    The Florida Board of Professional Engineers began investigating some house designs in 1999, after the Times reported that many gable-roof homes could fail in hurricane-force winds.

    In a study commissioned by the newspaper, 19 of 23 engineered designs didn't meet the Standard Building Code's requirement that homes be designed to withstand 100-mph winds. The newspaper's study showed gable walls with design capacities in the 50-, 60- and 70-mph range.

    That doesn't necessarily mean the houses would collapse in those winds, but they might fail in winds below 100-mph.

    The Times' findings prompted the Engineering Board to send a warning about the gable problem to the state's 25,000 professional engineers and 900 building code administrators.

    However, the Times' study was strongly criticized by the Florida Engineering Society, the trade association for engineers. The newspaper's study was too narrow in its approach, society representative Roger L. Jeffrey said in 1999.

    Indeed, the FBPE's experts found that eight of the designs in the study didn't meet code, a much lower failure rate than found by the Times' experts.

    There's no way to determine how many houses were built from those eight designs. Nobody keeps such statistics. But gable roofs are popular in Florida because they're attractive and cheaper than hip roofs, Florida's other prevalent roof style. Hip roofs are simpler to engineer and more resistant to wind.

    A hip roof covers the house like a hat. Gable roofs have two sides connected by a tall wall -- a gable wall -- that's peaked like the letter "A."

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