Biggest Construction Failures Of All Time

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Sampoong Department Store

Seoul, South Korea


The Sampoong Department Store in Seoul was not always the building that the construction company intended. Similar to the time constraints occurring in the US during the Hyatt Regency Hotel collapse, South Korean construction companies were pressured to complete projects quickly and efficiently. This was partly due to the ruling of the South Korean government, not allowing overseas construction companies to take on projects in the country, and partly due to trying to cash in on the construction boom that coincided with the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The Sampoong Department Store was originally intended to be a four-storey residential building, but when construction started in 1987, future chairman of the Sampoong Construction Division, Lee Joon, made a last-minute decision to change the blueprints to accommodate for a large department store, a decision that would prove disastrous. Structural issues are once again to blame here, but these issues would not have occurred if the building was constructed according to its original plans. The problem with turning the residential building in to a department store, is that to make space for the escalators that are common place in buildings of similar purpose, several structural columns were removed, but this was just one of the many structural problems that the building suffered, even in its foundations. The building was constructed using flat slabs of concrete, with no structural framing or crossbeams, meaning there was no way to safely distribute weight evenly across the floors of the building. The original blueprints, created by Woosung Construction Company, called for supports in the building to be at least 31 inches thick, to ensure the building would stand safely. But after this suggestion was made, Joon decided to fire the company and it was decided that Joon’s own construction company would take on the job instead. Joon ordered for the columns to be reduced in thickness and spaced further apart to maximise retail space, another careless decision that further meant that all floors of the building could not hold the weight of not only the people in the building, but the floors above it. More poorly thought out decisions followed, including 45 tonne air conditioning units that put the design limit of the building over by four times, and a fifth-floor extension that was against zoning regulations. The Sampoong Department Store was officially opened to the public on July 7th 1990, attracting around 40,000 people a day. The combination of the amount of people visiting the building every day and the buildings countless structural issues, lead to the collapse of the building on June 29th 1995. Cracks were starting to show in the ceiling of the fifth floor in April of that same year, as a result of dragging incredibly heavy air conditioning units across the delicate roof of the building, and the vibrations made by these units cause these cracks to widen at an alarming rate. These cracks increased over the coming months, but Joon and the management of the store did little more than close parts of the top floor off to customers, the building was not closed down and evacuation orders were not followed until 5 minutes before the building collapsed, but by that time it was too late. The dangerous actions carried out by Joon and the construction team resulted in a disaster that has been named as one of the biggest non-deliberate building collapses of all time. Lee Joon was put on trial and was charged with criminal negligence and sentenced to 10 and a half years in prison.

Hyatt Regency Hotel – Kansas, USA – 1981

Construction on the grandiose 40-storey Hyatt Regency Hotel began in 1978, a project that was described as “fast-tracked” due to the financial climate at the time putting pressure on construction companies to win contracts and execute projects quickly and efficiently. The project suffered from major issues early on, including the collapse of a large section of the roof, a foreshadowing that went unnoticed. The hotel officially opened in 1980, with many admiring its sleek and modern design and architecture. One of its defining features was the hotel’s lobby, especially the steel, glass and concrete walkways, two of which were directly on top of each other, connected several floors of the hotel. However, these walkways would prove to be the constructions downfall, literally. On the evening of July 17th 1981, many people were gathered in the hotels lobby, and packed onto these walkways for an event that was taking place. Because of this, guests on the fourth-floor walkway started to hear popping noises, before this walkway fell several inches, paused for a few moments, then continued to fall to the lobby’s floor, taking the second-floor walkway down with it. The cause of the collapse was a result of a change in design of the walkways during the construction phase of the project. In the original design, both the second and fourth floor walkways had their own support systems, only needing to support their own weight. This would have been effective, but the design was changed so that the fourth-floor walkway would be responsible for holding the weight of both, which it was clearly unable to do. An investigation into the incident concluded that this issue would have been easily recognised if the proper checks had been performed before construction began, but due to severe miscommunication between project managers and manufacturers, these checks were not carried out.

Versailles Wedding Hall – Jerusalem, Israel – 2001

When Keren and Asaf Dror planned their special day, this would’ve been the last thing they expected to happen, when a large portion of the third storey of the Versailles Wedding Hall collapsed. The culprit of this collapse was identified by wedding guests’ moments before the incident. They noticed a significant sagging in the floor of the third storey before it crumbled and fell to the ground. The wedding celebrations were taking place solely on this third floor, with 700 guests in attendance, so clearly the floor could not handle that many people at once. If you’re thinking it’s not every day a floor sags and collapses, that’s because the construction method used to develop this particular building proved to be so dangerous, the practice was banned. The Pal Kal method of construction was based on the process of creating lightweight floors and ceilings from metal plates and cement, an extremely cheap option that proved popular in the 1980’s. This was not the only cause of the collapse however, when the building was designed, only one side was designed to accommodate a third storey, but a last-minute design change resulted in both sides of the building having a third storey. As well as this, the owners of the building decided to remove the partitions, resulting in an even weaker structure and the subsequent floor sagging. A major oversight on behalf of the owners, referring to the sagging floor as a cosmetic issue, allowed Keren and Asaf’s wedding to go ahead just weeks later, resulting in the collapse. The inventor of the Pal Kal construction method, Eli Ron, was arrested and charged with manslaughter in August 2002, due to the fact that he sold the defective materials to the construction company that built the wedding hall.

Vdara Hotel & Spa – Las Vegas, USA – 2009

One of the few structures in this list that is still standing, the Vdara Hotel & Spa in Las Vegas presented its own unique set of problems, based on the design of the exterior of the building. In 2010, a whole year after the hotel was built, it was discovered that the combination of the buildings reflective surface and curved design acted as a collective mirror that reflected the rays of the sun in to one beam of intense light and heat. Unfortunately for the guests, that one beam happens to present itself in the middle of the pool deck of the hotel. Often referred to as a “death ray” by everyone from hotel staff to news outlets, this issue has caused some issues that wouldn’t occur in a stay at a typical hotel. Guests relaxing by the pool would be regularly singed by this ray of intense heat, with one guest even reporting that it melted a plastic bag he had with him. The hotels management have taken as many steps as they can to prevent more issues caused by the design of the building. While no solution will be 100% effective due to the constant movement of the sun according to time of day as well as the changing of seasons, management have taken it upon themselves to install large umbrellas to try to deflect they ray directly off of people, as well as covering the glass with non-reflective film. Strangely, the architect behind this building, Rafael Viñoly, has a history of designing buildings with this particular issue. The Walkie Talkie skyscraper in London, also designed by Viñoly, is now commonly and comically referred to as “Walkie Scorchie” and “Fryscraper” after reports that the building reflected light so intensely that it would melt cars and people could fry eggs in its path.

The Leaning Tower Of Pisa – Pisa, Italy – 1372

Never before has a construction failure amazed and captured the interest of residents and tourists quite like the international landmark that is The Leaning Tower Of Pisa. The tower attracts around 5 million visitors every year, quite impressive for a building that gets its peculiar design from shoddy foundations and being built on soil that had no load bearing abilities whatsoever. Construction of the tower occurred in three stages over an incredible 199 years, first beginning on January 5th 1172. Construction was going as planned, until the second floor was being built in 1178, around this time is when the now infamous sinking and leaning began. The tower sits on a tiny three-meter foundation, and the soil does not have the natural qualities required to hold up such a heavy structure, so the designs for the tower were flawed to begin with. The tower would’ve almost definitely collapsed if it weren’t for civil unrest in the country at the time, which allowed the soil time to settle, making for a slightly stronger foundation. The tilt of the structure was a noticeable issue, so to compensate for this, the upper floors of the tower are built in a way that make them taller on one side, resulting in the curved structure that still stands today. Construction finally finished in 1372 with the last addition being a bell tower containing seven bells, one for each note of the major scale, but the last bell was not installed until 1655. The answer to the popular question of why the tower still hasn’t toppled over after hundreds of years, is easily explained through an understanding of gravity in terms of buildings. The towers centre of gravity is aligned perfectly with its base, whether this was done intentionally or purely by accident, this careful gravitational alignment is how The Leaning Tower of Pisa stays leaning. However, work has been undertaken throughout the 19th and 20th century to decrease the angle of the leaning, which was eventually successful, taking the angle of incline from 5.5 to 3.9 degrees.

Ibrox Stadium – Glasgow, Scotland – 1902

Structural problems in sports stadiums have occurred a number of times since they first started popping up around the world, with the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 still on the minds of sports fans and the public today. The collapse of the Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow was one of the first recorded incidents of sport stadium collapse, setting a precedent for events to come. Known as Ibrox Park at the time and home to Rangers F.C, the stadium followed the model of the Scottish stadiums that were already built at the time, so it was mostly assumed that Ibrox Park would be safe. All of the Scottish stadiums at the time were competing to host football matches and all-important finals, and with not much in it between them in terms of design and space, Ibrox Park decided to construct a large terracing, built to expand the stadiums capacity by 36,000. This terracing was constructed using wooden planks bolted on to iron framework and was even approved by the local authorities’ surveyors a month before the collapse. On April 5th 1902, mass crowds gathered to watch the highly anticipated Scotland versus England match, with a total of 68,114 people in attendance that day. Shortly after kick-off, once of the sections of the terracing was reported to have collapsed like a trap door, causing approximately 125 people to fall 50ft to the ground below. The cause of this incident was furiously up for debate, with some blaming the quality of the wood used in the terracing, and some pointing the finger at the design of the terracing itself. The quality of wood used became such a strongly believed theory that the supplier of the wood used in the terracing was placed on trial for culpable homicide, but was later acquitted. After the incident, the wooden terraces were removed, but not until 1910, 8 years after in collapse. While this was a wise decision on the part of the stadium, they counteracted this by hiring the same architect to build another expansion in the same year that his faulty terracing was removed. Ibrox Park continued to have a number of safety issues involving injury and sometimes death over the years, so much so that in 1971 there was another incident at the stadium, referred to as the second Ibrox disaster. Ibrox Stadium is still home to Rangers F.C today, with a completely overhaul with modern upgrades and design techniques, developed off the back of the 1971 disaster.

Grenfell Tower – London, UK – 2017

A tragedy that is still a sore subject today, and investigations still ongoing, the fire that broke out at Grenfell Tower in South Kensington in June 2017 left a charred shell of a building that shows what can happen if improper materials are used. The initial cause of the fire was a malfunctioning fridge/freezer in one of the flats on the fourth floor, which led to the wall behind it catching fire, setting off the smoke alarm and subsequently awakening the resident in the flat. At this point, the fire was not of massive concern, as electrical fires are a common occurrence and are easily manageable by firefighters. However, when firefighters started to put out the kitchen fire, a new problem presented itself. A column of flames was rapidly making its way up the side of the building and continued to do so at an alarming rate. At around 1:15am, firefighters had to resort to more large-scale solutions to try to contain the fire, but these methods proved no match for the fire, as it was located behind waterproof material that wrapped around the tower block. This meant the fire took only 15 minutes to become completely out of control, leaving residents trapped inside the burning building, made even worse by the faulty fire doors that caused toxic smoke to pour through the building. The fire could not be fully extinguished until 2 days after the initial blaze started, and the charred remains of the building still remain standing as a chilling reminder to this day. As previously mentioned, the initial cause of the fire was established relatively quickly, what proved more difficult was what caused the fire to travel up the building and cause as much devastation as it did. The problem lies with the cladding that was installed to the tower block just a month before the fire. The zinc cladding used on the building was installed to improve energy efficiency and to improve the aesthetics of the harsh looking concrete tower block. On the surface these seem like perfectly justifiable reasons to have the cladding installed, but there was one problem that was grossly underestimated, zinc is highly flammable. On top of that, the subsequent chemical compound that comes from burning zinc, zinc oxide, is a known irritant when inhaled. The investigation conducted after the incident revealed some other reasons why the cladding was installed, including cost-cutting, even though according to some sources, a more fire proof version of the cladding could be purchased for just £5,000 more to cover the whole tower. Investigations are still ongoing, so it might be a while yet until we understand all of the factors that combined to form this blaze.

Cave Creek – Paparoa National Park, New Zealand – 1995

On the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand sits Paparoa National Park, a picturesque nature reserve that has views of cliff faces and oceans for miles. With such breath-taking scenery, it seems only natural to have viewing spaces so that visitors will be able to take in the full experience of the park, but while a good idea in theory, in practice the results were questionable at the very best. The Department of Conservation (DOC) began work on a viewing platform overlooking the small stream known as Cave Creek, in perfect view to see the stream flow through the cave system below. The project was finished in April 1994, just in time for a group of students from the Tai Poutini Polytechnic School to visit the park. Upon arriving at the viewing platform, it is said that several students started shaking the platform, causing it to fall forward into the chasm below. While the actions of the students were not the safest to begin with, the simple shaking motion should not have caused the platform to collapse. Like many other structure collapses, construction error is to blame, however, the Cave Creek incident took this to a whole new level. It turns out that the building team hired to take on the project did not have the qualifications to carry out such a task. Simple errors and cut corners resulted in the platform being vulnerable to this type of incident, such as using nails to connect the bearers to the piles instead of bolts, with the only reason for this being that a drill hadn’t been purchased. Further probing of the incident uncovered at least 12 issues that presented themselves during the platform’s construction, and the disregarding of these issues are what lead to the platform being plunged in to a chasm.

Kings Cross Escalator – London, UK – 1987

Kings Cross Station is one of the major interchanges in the London Underground system, serving 6 out of 11 lines currently in operation on the Underground. As many as 150,000 people pass through the station every day, which is why the fire that occurred on the Piccadilly Line escalator on November 18th 1987 was a dark day for the city of London. The fire occurred at around 7:30pm on the evening of the 18th, at the tail end of rush hour. Several passengers reported a fire underneath the ascending escalator connecting the Piccadilly Line platform to street level. Due to the placement of the fire, it could not be put out using standard fire extinguishers and staff at the station were not trained on how to use the more advanced equipment available to them at the time. A few minutes after the fire started, fire fighters arrived to a blaze that was about as big as a cardboard box that they thought could be easily extinguished with a water jet. However, a combination of physics and bad luck meant the situation was about to get much worse. At 7:42pm, less than 15 minutes after the small fire started, the entire escalator was up in flames, being further fuelled by the enclosed spaced and the burning of around 20 layers of paint that was being topped up during refurbishment of the escalator tunnel. As the situation progressed, around 3 minutes later, the fire would escalate once again in a way that no one had ever seen before. At 7:45pm, the flames shot up the escalator and in to the ticket hall, filling it with blistering heat and toxic smoke. This unexpected turn of events was a result of a phenomenon known as the trench effect. When any fire occurs on or beside and inclining surface, this incline causes any material above the initial fire to heat up, this chain reaction causes the gases that form to auto ignite, resulting in the rapid escalation of the fire. The investigation in to this case was unlike others on this list, due to the complicated physics of the incident. It was established relatively quickly that the initial ignition was started by a lit match discarded on the escalator, but it was not clear if the fire was started intentionally, and how the fire escalated as quickly as it did. It was later established that the match was discarded after a cigarette was lit on the escalator. Even though smoking on the London Underground was banned in 1984, people still chose to flaunt the rules and light their cigarettes on the escalator as they approached the exit. However, even the build up of grease under the escalator would not have been enough to create a fire of that size and intensity. Upon further inspection, debris found under the tracks of the escalator were found to be easily ignitable when computer simulated tests were conducted. Up until the fire, escalators were made with a combination of wood and metal, and it is quite well known that wood is flammable, so in the wake of the incident, work was carried out to make the escalators completely metal. However, even after this terrible incident, the last wooden escalator was not replaced until 2013 in Greenford Station in Greater London.

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