CIAPR president: A local property maintenance code is in the works

New legislative push prompted by concerns in the aftermath of condo collapse in Surfside, Fla.

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Engineers and Land Surveyors Association of Puerto Rico (CIAPR by its Spanish initials) President Juan Alicea confirmed to The STAR that the organization is in talks with the island House of Representatives to generate legislation that would force the government to adopt a building maintenance code that the previous administration rejected in 2018, and that would include a paragraph of the International Property Maintenance Code to require structural inspections on a predetermined time schedule for multi-story buildings.

In an exclusive interview for Lunchtime with The STAR, Alicea indicated however that there are requirements on the island for multi-story buildings, both public and private, for inspecting their installed safety systems. Such inspections would seek to audit buildings “structural element by structural element,” which would involve requiring a thorough visual inspection of the structure to check if it still complies with the building codes in effect at the time.

“It would not be an annual inspection; it would be an inspection with a longer period of time, but it is much more detailed, and obviously, the costs to correct what is there would be more serious,” the engineer told the STAR. “But these costs are necessary so that the structure is safe under any scenario.”

Alicea noted that implementing a property maintenance code should be a priority in order to prevent an event like the collapse of the Champlain Tower South condominium in Surfside, Florida from happening on the island.

According to press reports, officials in South Florida reported that 97 victims, including six Puerto Ricans, were confirmed dead in the Surfside collapse. It has been suggested that up to 159 people could have been killed in the collapse, which occurred four weeks ago.

“Already looking at Puerto Rico, it behooves us, and the CIAPR has to be a leader in this, to look at ourselves,” the engineer said. “We are on the coast, we also have buildings, especially in the Ocean Park area, in Isla Verde, there are already buildings with more than 50 years in saline environments, and that is a concern.”

Although Alicea acknowledged the economic challenge that carrying out such an inspection and repair procedure could imply for building owners on the island, he stated that implementing a measure of the kind the CIAPR contemplates would be a unique way to guarantee the safety of the users of these buildings.

“We are also recommending that there be a priority that would be directed, for one, at the age of the construction of the buildings, and two, at the size in square feet of the construction,” the CIAPR president said. “That is, that [inspection priorities] go in a specific order until reaching residences like ours, which may be a two-level residence.”

Meanwhile, Alicea noted, the legislation would also seek to specify the type of inspection to be performed according to the type of zone in which the building is located.

“I would not be opposed to that, but if we want our families to be safe, it has to be done,” he said.

Alicea pointed out, in response to a question from the STAR, that another important point that such a bill would seek to address would be to generate an inventory of how many multi-story buildings there are on the island.

To date, there is no official registry from any government agency that maintains a count of active multi-story buildings on the island.

“Our engineers at the Earthquake Commission, who have more experience, they have mentioned numbers, but that is not enough,” said the engineer, noting that the commission, which has been in operation for more than 40 years, has identified about 10,000 buildings with 12 stories or more in Puerto Rico.

“This is a considerable number, but it’s up to OGPe [the Spanish acronym for the Permit Management Office] right now to pull that data up,” he said.

OGPe, formerly known as the Puerto Rico Regulations and Permit Administration (ARPE by its Spanish acronym), is the office in charge of issuing final determinations and permits, licenses, inspections, certifications, and any other authorization or process that may be necessary to meet the requests of the citizenry.

Furthermore, OGPe, which is under the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, is responsible for facilitating and promoting “the integrated, economic, social and physical sustainable development of Puerto Rico that will result in the growth of more, better and diverse industries and in the creation of jobs in the private sector.”

“The Municipal Revenues Collection Center and the Planning Board should also get involved with OGPe in such an exercise to pull such data up,” Alicea said. “This will also be something that we are recommending to the Legislature, which is to develop a trustworthy inventory that provides information on since when the buildings have been in use, how many square feet the building occupies in area for this branch to establish the priorities to inspect the property.”

The CIAPR chief said a dependable inventory would allow the government to conduct preemptive inspections to pull up more information in a database and allow proper enforcement of the code. He added that Deputy House Speaker Rep. José “Conny” Varela has told him that the legislation remains in draft form and its authors intend to introduce it in the Second Legislative Session starting next month.

“When you study why building codes exist, it’s mainly because tragedies like the one in Florida took place,” Alicea said. “What matters here is that the code is developed as soon as possible.”

“As this represents more costs for property owners, there could be a few who will be resistant and pretend something like this should fall under the owner’s discretion,” he added. “This is not about painting or making a building look pretty. It is about making a building safe.”

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