LEED Building Vacated Due to Structural Issues

Construction defects often take a long time to develop.  Take, for example, the Courthouse Square building in Salem, Oregon, which is used for county offices and retail stores.  It was constructed in 2000 and received its LEED certification in 2002. 

As early as 2002, problems were identified at the project, including cracked grouting and loose tiles.  But it was not until July 2010 that the Courthouse Square buiding had to be vacated due to structural problems

"Henderson said the county started monitoring the floor in 2008 after an evaluation by David Evans and Associatesfound floor deflection, stating that 'portions of the original structural floor slab design were inadequate with regard to code requirements'. . . .

The county’s original plan was to stay in the building as the firm did tests on the building’s integrity, but that plan changed when the floors got worse.

'It’s only been in the last short time that the seriousness of these issues have come to light,' said Henderson. 'We had an incident on Friday where we believe one of the post tension cables ruptured.'

The cables are located in the building’s concrete floor slabs to provide rigidity. Several cables are in the slabs for redundancy and backup support, so the county at first did not believe one ruptured cable posed an immediate threat.

But after the rupture, further inspection found that 33 to 35 of the building’s 220 columns where bearing a weight that is more than code allows. The county then decided to vacate the building."

Since the evacuation was the result of construction defects, my initial thought was that LEEDigation was unlikely.  But a blog post at Green Building Elements further piqued my interest regarding potential LEEDigation:

"No one knows, or is saying at least, what is causing all the structural issues.  Cracked walls and ceilings are the hallmark of what appears to be a buckling post-tensioned concrete slab.  The concrete was recently tested and found to not meet the specified strength.  Garbage was found in the slab when samples were taken." 

Would any of the following scenarios be grounds for LEED decertification if the original certification was challenged?

  • Installing concrete slabs that include garbage?
  • Failing to meet code requirements?
  • Having a LEED-certified building deemed structurally unsound? 

What do you think? 

Photo Credit: Oregon.gov

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Comments (19) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
James - August 25, 2010 4:24 PM

When will we start spending money on steel and cement instead of paperwork?

Peter Moonen - August 26, 2010 12:33 AM

Whether a building is LEED certified or not, first and foremost it needs to be able to perform the function for which it was built. Anything short of achieving this objective results in a colossal waste of time, money, energy, resources and space. Either the contractor or the specifiers need to be called on the carpet to explain poor construction or installation practices. If the building does not meet minimum code requirements, it should not be occupied, let alone certified under any rating tool. LEED is designed to push buildings beyond code and compliance to code should be a requirement BEFORE certification can be permitted.

Damon Cameron - August 26, 2010 9:36 AM

I agree with Peter. What does this building's structural deficiencies have to do with LEED? Are buildings some times designed wrong? Are buildings sometimes constructed wrong? I was really interested in this article; because I thought it was going to make some connection between the LEED/Green design and a structural failure but it does not do that. Please tell me what the point of this article was? Perhaps the title of the article should be "McDonalds linked to structural failure and potential death of hundreds"

Chris Cheatham - August 26, 2010 9:43 AM

Damon -

Peter makes the point that "compliance to code should be a requirement BEFORE certification can be permitted." So the question that he and I both have is the following:

If a building is found not to comply with building code, should it retain its LEED certification?


Damon Cameron - August 26, 2010 10:20 AM

I would not want my name on a building that was falling down, no matter what, but there is a difference between the sign reading "Certified energy efficient" and "Certified structurally sound"

Helena Meryman - August 27, 2010 12:04 PM

LEED is also about resource use beyond energy efficiency. I believe cerification should be revoked until the problem is addressed, and then perhaps reinstated. There is nothing energy efficient about a building that cannot be occupied.
Regarding the connection between LEED and the structural failure, I agree there is nothing in the article to suggest a relationship. I would really love to get a look at the concrete spec, mix design and trial batch submittals, as well as the foresnsic analysis (petrographic etc).

Mark - August 27, 2010 12:07 PM

What the heck does the LEED Certification have to do with these issues. These are construction or structural design defects, the LEED certification is not about structural integrity. It is about energy use & environmental impact. To link one issue to the other is an incredible leap.

Michael - August 27, 2010 12:09 PM

LEED acceditation and structural integrity have nothing to do with one another. I agree with Damon. Writing about a structurally failing building and then mentioning its LEED accreditation without making a connection is pointless. Who cares if it will keep its LEED accreditation when it can't be occupied?

Scott Sundberg - August 27, 2010 12:15 PM

If green = energy efficient
If sustainability = green
How sustainable is a building that must be torn down or extensively repaired?

If you could heat/cool the entire building with 10kw a day it would pale in comparison to the energy wasted in producing the materials and to construct the building. If a building can not be used...by definition it IS NOT energy efficient. If a building has a short service life and/or can not stand up to wind/seismic/waves and must be rebuilt and rebuilt... IT IS NOT energy efficient.
"useability" = Sustainability = Green
How could there be any doubt or why, indeed was there any question?
LEED = ? I guess if how long the building lasts IS NOT a fundamental question or factor then LEED = 0

Pat Daly - August 27, 2010 12:25 PM

From the USGBC website:

"LEED is an internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance across all the metrics that matter most: energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts."

So, safety and structural integrity are not "...metrics that matter most". Else, what Scott says, particularly "..was there any question?"

Dave - August 27, 2010 1:28 PM

Did they get extra points for incorporating garbage in the slab? Was this part of the project's waste diversion/recycling plan?

Phil Caswell, PE - August 27, 2010 1:29 PM

From this structural engineer's view, any building that was constructed, underperformed for 10 years, then must be torn down is, by definition, not "sustainable". To answer the question - no, it should not retain its certification. But then, if it goes away, what difference does it make?
I would also like to put in a plug for designing structural systems beyond the code minimum, and for true sustainability. Some of my most satisfying projects were renovating and repurposing 100-year old buildings that were "over-designed" originally. Now, THAT's sustainable.

Jeffrey Nickerson - August 27, 2010 3:21 PM

I think this says it all "stewardship of resources"..

Thank you Pat for the USGBC quote to copy and paste from. A fundamental part of the LEED system is to exceed existing conditions that WASTE resources.

The fact that a $30 million dollar waste of money stands in Salem, Oregon is enough for the taxpayers to raise hell. LEED should be no different. $30 million dollars on a building that its tenants must evacuate before the floors cave in sounds like a failure on many levels that don't concern LEED. However they do concern LEED. There is no option to recoup investment cost through energy savings if you can occupy.

The original article doesn't tie LEED design to the failure but it sure does try.They didn't mention fly ash once. Would be nice to know if it was the trash embedded in the concrete that was found or a component used for certification.

Scott Sundberg, P.E. - August 28, 2010 10:05 AM

Is not "stewardship of natural resources, and their impacts"..the ultimate goal of green building = Leed ?
Sustainability must be a critic quantified metric !!! There is no question in my mind, the subject building should be stripped of its "certification" and if Leed Inasmuch as the subject building has not been "de-certified," meeting minimum building requirements apparently must be specifically written into the body of the program language, if Leed Certification has any real value and can be taken seriously. Additionally, there should be a point system for the service life- sustainability and/or code plus value. It just makes sense ...dollars and cents to build to our constructed environment to last. To move away from a throw-away - build it again in 15-20 year mentality.
Design and build structures and envelopes with a 100- - 200 year projected life (at least) as well consider the impact of use and maintenance....for the longest term -period that is practicable.
As Mr. Caswell points out, historic buildings do not survive because they were under built....
For me designing and building for sustainability; to stand up to Wild Fires,Seismic events, Hurricane winds and Storm Surges, floods etc. is the most important and most fundamental foundation for being green = good stewardship of all resources including human endevors... THATs "LEED-er-ship" !!

Scott Sundberg, P.E. - August 28, 2010 10:20 AM

And...If the building does not go away? it does make a difference if the building does not go away...It is a "LEED-ing" question ~ is there less environmental impact to repair the building than to tare it down and start again? And with what materials.
The original building should be de-certified.
Under-designed buildings are not as uncommon as some think. Perhaps pee-review of the structure should be a metric as part of the green proof.

Ujjval Vyas, Ph.D., J.D. - August 28, 2010 1:43 PM

The most obvious way in which LEED may intersect with this problem involves the choice of aggregate and the recycling points often sought by using large amounts of fly-ash. I have had a number of conversations with engineers regarding the lack of clarity regarding how such fly-ash may perform over time and or create degradation in concrete from leaching chemical compounds not present in currently common concrete mixes. Combine this with the fact that this is a post-tensioned slab and we may have an additional area of concern.

There is little doubt that the USGBC is not concerned with buildings per se or their performance. They are interested in expanding the range of environmental concern to the realm of the built world. No surprise then that structural soundness or other types of safety concerns are of little moment, certainly their responses to the recent decertification efforts in Wisconsin show that possible violation of local code and ASHRAE requirements linked to IAQ and energy are not an adequate reason to remove the certification.

I was recently informed of an actual example where the concrete mix and structural design were linked to LEED and are alleged to be involved in a building failure. The project involved a green roof which failed catastrophically because the concrete column and slab design was inadequate to support the additional dead load. It is unclear what the particulars were/are but at least this is one example.

Another structural example would be the Chesapeake Bay Foundation building's envelope delamination resulting from the selection of wood members for recycling points. This has been written about extensively.

I am sure that people with a more detailed engineering knowledge than I can help elucidate the role of aggregates and fly-ash in post-tensioned concrete slabs and columns and the links to LEED choice-making more effectively, but at least we should realize that structural issues do intersect with LEED decision-making.

Franklin J. Kapustka, P.E. - August 28, 2010 4:18 PM

I just took a LEED class at the end of July. A quality architect and structural engineer should have already been incorporating LEED principles. The job of the structural engineer is to make sure the building meets all codes and is structurally sound. Other than for building footprint and site disturbance, LEED has very little impact in structural design unless products are being shipped in outside of a 500 mile radius. Quality structural engineers are going to control costs and materials as much as possible anyway. LEED may actually increase cost because green roofs may exceed normal roof loads. However, LEED might save the client money in terms of HVAC because geothermal is always the most efficient method. Just be sure to space wells at least 20 ft apart, use spacers on the closed loops, and be careful not to make heat islands. LEED may cuts water usage through low flow toilets, waterless urinals, graywater for toilets and cistern water for irrigation. Many existing structures failed to establish building envelopes. Curtainwalls act as radiators in the winter and heat sinks in the summer unless coated with silcone with titanium oxide (my original idea on the silicone). Others have suggested putting structural foam behind brick. However, it only is a moisture barrier after 2.5 inches. Unless their is a moisture barrier, rot might be an issue. Furthermore, the proper use of runoff ( a LEED issue) may prevent downstream flooding, which most municipalities require anyway.
Lastly, having worked in the trades, I can tell you that many are high school dropouts, screwball, thieves, potheads, etc. There are some really great guys out there. However, having worked in the new Motorola HQ where their are 3 foot troughs in the floor, I would prefabricate everything possible. Prefabricated sandwich walls (with tubing cast in for water heating and cooling, power, phone, high pressure forced air HVAC, etc.) or hollow core floor slabs and curtain walls, prefabricated walls from companies like National Partitions, castellated beams, prefabricated columns, etc. DO NOT RELY ON THE SKILL OR KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRADESMEN. THE BUILDING TRADES ARE PRIMARILY GROUPS OF PEOPLE THAT HIRE THEIR FRIENDS AND RELATIVES. THEY ARE NOT TO BE TRUSTED AT ALL. Being it the trades is like being in "special" class in high school.

Corky Metcalf, GE - August 30, 2010 12:26 PM

Franklin correctly highlights the issue of the actual construction meeting the design requirements. Like the American auto industry refused to understand and accept, you cannot inspect in quality. It has to happen at each step by each involved. Since government projects pay prevailing wage, the workers who typically come from the union hall have no allegiance or real stake in the success of the project - it is just another assignment. And the trades are made up of family members and friends, and they do not encourage competition to improve, as this threatens the union (family) structure.

Brian D. Anderson - August 30, 2010 4:35 PM

My immediate thought is that all documents submitted to the USGBC for certification should be made publically available on any taxpayer funded project. Reporters and the general public should be able to see what the taxpayers are buying.

Mr. Vyas is absolutely correct in asserting that LEED does bear on structural issues. Recycled building materials (e.g., fly ash) could have been incorporated in an effort to obtain LEED points. If this is the case, the obvious question is whether pursuit of LEED points has come at price of better, professional judgement. I've heard many stories about projects going to absurd lengths to chase LEED points, often in the face of better judgement by seasoned engineers. Hopefully, this story is not an example of taking this pracitice to its absurd limits by building a structure so sustainable that it falls to the ground.

At some point, we have to remind ourselves that the practice of engineering and architecture cannot be reduced to a checklist (green or otherwise) and that sustainability is truly grounded in strong building codes, sound professional judgement and qualified inspection.

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