NY School Roof Collapse Causes Wide Concern

Tue September 07, 2004 - Northeast Edition

ALBANY, NY (AP) The outdated design of structural steel supports common in older schools nationwide and blamed on the collapse of a New York school roof is now a concern nationwide, warned school structural design authorities.

The U-shaped joist is blamed on the Aug. 1 roof collapse in an empty classroom in the 44-year-old Taft Elementary School in Washingtonville. The joist was a popular method of design at the time throughout much of the country, said Peter D’Antonio, of Sarnafil Roofing and Waterproofing Systems Co. in Canton, MA, a major school contractor.

New York’s Education Department has issued an “important structural advisory” to schools statewide to urge thorough, professional inspections following the roof collapse 54 mi. north of New York City. A leaky roof let rainwater collect for years in the U-joint, which then rusted and crumbled, the advisory stated.

Manufactured since 1900, the joist was commonly used in school construction through the early 1970s, school and industry officials said. And more than half the nation’s schools were built before 1960, said Barbara Worth of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International based in Scottsdale, AZ.

Although structural fault investigator Joe Zona hasn’t seen widespread blame of the joist in collapses, “I understand now that this has happened there is that potential … when you know something like that can happen, it’s hard to argue against inspection,” said Zona of the Simpson, Gumpertz and Heger construction firm in Waltham, MA, that also investigates structural problems.

“While the use of this particular type of joist may have been fairly common, this does not mean that there is a widespread problem,” cautioned Jonathan Burman of New York’s Education Department. “The roof collapse at Taft was caused by a combination of factors — the use of the particular joist together with the fact that there was long-term, undetected water exposure, caused by a leaky roof. So, it was a unique combination of factors, and not just the use of the particular type of joist, that caused the collapse.”

Leaky roofs, however, are common at schools nationwide, particularly in recent years where budgets were strained by reduced state funding because of state deficits, said Paul Abramson of the school construction firm of Stanton Leggett Associates in Larchmont, Westchester County. A school district consultant, he also has tracked school construction since 1974 for a national school planning and management magazine.

“What happens, unfortunately, is school districts cut back on maintenance, so what we do see is roof leaks,” Abramson said.

“It comes down to the issue of resources,” said Barbara Knisely of the American Association of School Administrators. “If school administrators had unlimited resources, that would be at the top of the agenda.”

The U.S. General Accounting Office, the research arm of Congress, surveyed 10,000 schools nationwide, in every region, large and small. It reported in 1996 that a third of schools needed extensive repair or replacement of one or more buildings. Among the most pressing concerns were roofs in need of patching or replacing.

The Education Infrastructure Act of 1994 was to provide $100 million nationwide to build, repair and renovate school buildings, but the funds were eliminated in budget-balancing deals.

“I think the state is probably on track as far as recommending the projects be inspected, particularly if there is that kind of joist in them,” said Ronald Fanning, a school architect at Fanning/Howey Associates of Celina, OH, that has built schools nationwide.

“If there is a roof leak, over time they very likely would have that problem,” he said. “It destroys the integrity of the steel to the point it loses its strength … I guess it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”