WSU Professor Deconstructs Spectacular Building Failures

SPOKANE - Ten years ago this month, a section of seats collapsed during renovation of Husky Stadium. Now an architecture professor from Washington State University is explaining why in a new book on construction failures.

The collapse of the addition to the stadium is one of 150 case studies featured in Ken Carper's book "Construction Failure."

Understanding why structures fail is as important as understanding why they succeed, Carper writes.

"Fear is one of the most effective emotions in the creative process," he said.

Carper found plenty of examples of construction failure for his book.

He includes the 1981 collapse of a Hyatt Regency Hotel skywalk in Kansas City, the sinking of the Lacy V. Murrow Floating Bridge across Lake Washington in 1990 and widespread building failures caused by earthquakes in San Francisco in 1989 and Los Angeles in 1994.

Buildings have become more technically complex, Carper said, but the potential for human error has not decreased. No comprehensive study has been done on whether the rate of construction failures has increased in recent decades, but he said there is a perception in the industry that failures are up.

He blames that on an emphasis on reducing construction time and costs that began in the 1970s.

More complex projects use new materials that may not perform as advertised over the long haul, Carper wrote.

He is also critical of the increased use of computers in design.

"Computers don't go to bed at night worrying about the mistakes they made during the day," Carper said.

Computers should be used to relieve designers of repetitive tasks, which could free up more time for designer participation in the construction phase, he said.

The Husky Stadium collapse is a classic example of poor construction planning, Carper said.

"The design was more than adequate," he said. But some guy cables used to temporarily stabilize the roofed, 20,000-seat addition were removed on Feb. 25, 1987, before permanent stabilizing structures were finished.

As a result, the cantilevered roof and stands collapsed. No one was injured or killed.

"Construction Failure" is actually a second edition of a landmark book written by the late Jacob Feld, a New York City engineer, 30 years ago. The book became an industry bible. Carper spent six years updating the book, and 80 percent of the material is new.

"Construction Failure" was published this year by John Wiley & Sons of New York.