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Five Historical Building Design Failures and What We Learned From Them

December 18, 2018

History shows that building designs don’t always work out the way they’re planned. When structures fail, the aftermath can be devastating. However, a failed structure can serve as a valuable lesson. Building design failures highlight architectural mistakes and teach engineers how to make future designs more structurally-sound.

Today, we’re going back in history to discover some of the most famous building blunders. Here are five structural failures that have not only shaped modern construction laws, but also remind us how far we’ve come in architectural engineering.

The St. Francis Dam Failure

1928: Los Angeles, California

In the 1920s, the St. Francis Dam served as a water reservoir for the city of Los Angeles, California. The dam was gigantic; it stood at 205 feet tall and held 12.5 billion gallons of water – enough water to serve the entire city for a year! Around midnight on March 12, 1928, dozens of nearby dam workers awoke to a loud cracking noise echoing through the canyon.

The dam had burst. A massive 120-foot wave of floodwater swept down and took the lives of 431 people nearby. In 70 minutes, the multi-billion-gallon reservoir had virtually emptied. To help local residents heal after the shocking disaster, the dam was dynamited. Experts say the dam’s failure was due to poor engineering and geological misreading. Construction laws were created accordingly, ensuring that a tragedy like this would never happen again.

St Francis Dam after disaster in 1928 Los Angeles

The Collapse of “Galloping Gertie”

1940: Pierce County, Washington

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, also known as “Galloping Gertie,” was a 2,800 foot long bridge that opened in 1940. The bridge was famous for the way it swayed, twisted and dipped during heavy winds. Tourists would flock to the bridge on windy days, paying to “ride” the bridge like a roller coaster. Although attempts were made to stabilize the bridge, Galloping Gertie met her demise only four months after construction was complete.

On November 7, 1940, the wind blew at 42 miles per hour. The bridge, which had begun to twist violently, was deemed unsafe by the bridge’s toll keeper. The last motorist to cross the bridge reportedly lost control of his car when he was nearly halfway across the tipping bridge. Afraid his vehicle might plummet off the bridge, the man exited his car and ran to safety.

Shortly thereafter, the bridge broke and plunged 190 feet down to the water below. Today, experts still disagree on the exact cause of the bridge’s destruction. However, bridge builders have learned from Galloping Gertie’s building blunder. Wind-tunnel testing is now mandatory for bridge designs. Additionally, precautions are taken to lessen the effect of strong winds on bridges.

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John Hancock Tower’s Falling Windows

1970s: Boston, Massachusetts

The John Hancock Tower is a 60-story skyscraper in Boston that experienced a series of construction blunders in the years following its construction. One of the most notable incidents involved the tower’s massive, 500-pound window panes. Due to thermal stress, many of the building’s windows became detached and fell hundreds of feet to the sidewalks below.

As a result, all 10,344 windows in the tower had to be replaced. During the months it took to diagnose the tower’s window issue, sheets of plywood replaced many of the missing glass panes. Because of this, many Bostonians began nicknaming the tower “the Plywood Palace” and joking that it was “the world’s tallest plywood building.” To add insult to injury, many of Hancock Tower’s upper-floor occupants complained of motion sickness when the tower swayed in the wind. Much to the relief of these workers, building contractors took steps to stabilize the tower.

John Hancock tower in 1970s Boston

The Lake Peigneur Drilling Accident

1980: Iberia Parish, Louisiana

In November 1980, a Texaco oil rig accidentally punctured the top of a salt mine situated beneath Lake Peigneur. As a result, the lake’s water rapidly drained into the caverns below, creating a massive vortex that sucked eleven barges underwater. The man-made sinkhole was so powerful, it caused the Delcambre Canal to flow backwards, and turned the lake’s freshwater permanently saline.

Fortunately, all 55 employees in the mine survived, thanks to well-rehearsed evacuation procedures. The crew of the drilling rig also survived, fleeing the platform before it was sucked underwater. Several days after the incident, the lake’s water equalized and nine of the missing barges emerged out of the whirlpool onto the lake’s surface. Today, the Lake Peigneur drilling accident is considered one of Louisiana’s most severe man-made disasters to date.

The Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse

1981: Kansas City, Missouri

On July 17, 1981, around 1,600 people gathered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel for a Friday night tea dance. Party-goes gathered on the hotel’s suspended walkways, watching the party from overhead. Due to defective steel support rods, the bridges could barely support their own dead loads of 64,000 pounds each. With the added weight of so many people, the bridges could no longer hold. All of a sudden, the fourth-floor bridge collapsed down onto the second-floor bridge, causing both structures to plunge to the atrium’s floor.

The devastating incident killed 114 people and injured 216. Millions of dollars in damages resulted from the collapse. After the disaster, the lobby was reconstructed with only one walkway crossing the second floor. Unlike the previous walkways, the new bridge was supported by several columns underneath it, rather than being suspended from the ceiling.

Hyatt Regency walkway collapse Kansas City Missouri 1981

Avoid Blunders in Your Facility

Nobody wants their buildings to fail. To protect your building from construction blunders, make sure your facility is up to code. Consider booking a consultation with a building code consultant, a local emergency management agency, a permitting official or a general contractor for additional help.

Another great way to protect your building is to stay up to date on the latest trends in facility safety and security. Start by reading AkitaBox’s Facility Safety and Security Plan Guide. This guide teaches ways to make your facility and the people in it more safe, secure and happy. Preview what you’ll learn and get a free download here.

What are some building blunders in your state?  Has your facility experienced a construction mishap? Let us know by sending us a comment below!

Meaghan Kelly

Former marketing content copywriter for AkitaBox.

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