Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
(Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

By Tara Hoke

This column reviews one of the most notable engineering failures in modern history. While often cited today for its impact on licensing laws for structural engineers, this tragedy also serves as a poignant lesson to engineers about the importance of examining decisions through the lens of professional ethics.


On March 27, 1981, workers were placing concrete on the roof of the Harbour Cay Condominium, a five-story residential project under construction on the central Florida coastline, when at least one worker noted hearing a loud “pop” within the structure. Minutes later, the building gave a tremendous shudder, the upper floors fell beneath the workers’ feet, and the entire structure collapsed. Eleven workers were killed in the collapse and more than 20 were wounded in what remains one of the worst construction accidents in U.S. history.

While the structure’s collapse was sudden and swift, it cannot be said that it happened without warning. Weeks prior to the collapse, spiderweb-shaped cracks were observed around the columns and midspans on the second and third floors. On March 10, these cracks were reported to the project’s two design engineers: Harold Meeler, who had sealed the plans for the entire project but purportedly performed only the calculations for the structure’s foundation, and Augustus Allen, who had designed the remainder of the structure.

Allen agreed to check the design calculations and inspect the problem later in person; meanwhile, the cracks were circled with yellow crayon to determine whether they would grow. They did not, but similar cracks were found in the newly poured fourth floor. One worker observed that upon removal of plumbing sleeves from a floor slab, it could be seen that the cracks extended to depths of 4-5 in.

In addition, notable deflections were reported in the floor slabs after the concrete formwork was removed, most prominently on the second floor. A water puddle was observed on one of the upper levels, indicating the presence of a low point in the floor. Additional concrete was added in the area of the depression, but the puddle soon reappeared. When the design engineers inspected the site on March 19, they recommended adding support beams to shore up the sagging floors but maintained that the building was sound.

Following the collapse, an independent investigation by the National Bureau of Standards (the forerunner to today’s National Institute of Standards and Technology) revealed just how misplaced the engineers’ confidence in their design was. The cause of the collapse was attributed to punching shear failure at one of the fifth-floor columns, causing progressive failure of the floor slabs first at the fifth floor and then on each lower level. 

The report noted that the structural calculations showed no evidence that the design engineers had ever considered punching shear or checked the applicable building code requirements for compliance — and indeed, the slab thickness specified in their design was a full 3 in. short of code requirements for the expected design load.

In addition, the shear resistance of the floor slabs was further weakened by a reduction in height of the rebar chairs used to support the top reinforcing bars, which in turn reduced the effective depth of the slabs. While the placement conflicted with the structural drawings, a set of shop drawings indicating the chair size was signed by Meeler with the handwritten note indicating “approved as noted.”

Meeler and Allen were retired NASA engineers. Meeler had a background in road and bridge construction for various public agencies, while Allen’s work for NASA ranged from design of warehouse and office buildings to work on the space program’s launch equipment. Both indicated structural engineering as their area of practice, but the obvious omissions in their design suggested that neither engineer had the requisite knowledge or expertise for concrete structures of this nature.

The engineers were brought before the state licensing board on charges of misconduct, negligence, and incompetence, and both agreed to surrender their licenses to practice.

One or both engineers were involved in the design of other development projects in the region, and news reports indicated that some of those projects also required remediation to address structural deficiencies.


What are the most significant ethical lessons to be learned from the Harbour Cay Condominium collapse?


Section 4f of the ASCE Code of Ethics states: “Engineers perform services only in areas of their competence.” Unfortunately, what seems like a simple principle in concept is often considerably more difficult to apply in practice. 

Over the course of their professional careers, it is all but inevitable for engineers to be faced with challenges or opportunities that place them outside their comfort zones. Engineering practice is under constant flux due to advancements in research, technological innovations, and changes in the physical, social, and regulatory environments. Engineers who fail to grow with the times may find themselves on the wrong side of a new threshold for competence, but those who adopt untested or ill-understood innovations may fall victim to avoidable blunders.

Moreover, defining one’s scope of competence is not without financial implications. A booming market on the margins of an engineer’s practice might suggest a promising area for professional growth, or a thin market might pressure engineers to stretch for other work that is within reach. An engineer who is unwilling to follow the work may not thrive in a competitive environment but neither will an engineer who delivers poor service due to a lack of knowledge or expertise.

In the face of these conflicting concerns, it may be useful for engineers to examine competence as it relates to their other ethical obligations. First, competence plays an important role in the engineer’s duty under Section 4a to “act as faithful agents of their clients and employers.” If the engineer can take steps to ensure that the client or employer is not disadvantaged by the engineer’s learning curve, then accepting the work is not unethical. If, conversely, an engineer cannot say that the client’s or employer’s best interests are served by someone with their level of competence, then the most ethical course is to decline the work.

Second, as the Harbour Cay collapse clearly demonstrates, engineers must remember that competence is not simply a matter of service to clients but instead is essential to fulfillment of the engineer’s paramount duty: Section 1a’s declaration to “first and foremost, protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” While a lack of competent service to a client or employer may have unwelcome financial repercussions, a lack of competence in a matter of public safety can cause immeasurable costs in terms of human lives or suffering.

This consideration of “health, safety, and welfare” is even more critical as a bulwark against the risk of overconfidence. The engineers behind the Harbour Cay design all but certainly did not feel they were unequal to the task of designing a safe structure, but that misjudgment was only the first of their many mistakes. If they had deemed safety as their priority and submitted their design for review by an engineer of unquestioned competence, then tragedy could have been averted.

While the focus of this column was on the ethics of the design engineers’ actions, it must be noted that catastrophic accidents rarely result from a single action or inaction. In this case, the workers lost in the Harbour Cay Condominium collapse were failed not only by two reckless engineers but also by an architect who overlooked irregularities in the design, contractors who turned a blind eye to significant construction mistakes, and city employees who lacked the time, expertise, or inclination to provide a thorough review of the project plans. 

One final lesson from this tragedy is the reminder that the people who work on, or are impacted by, an engineering project are best served when all parties involved are mindful of their roles in keeping safety at the forefront.

Tara Hoke is ASCE’s general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Civil Engineering.