Emergency demo bids threaten to be new normal
There is no emergency. New model shows why Great Northern won't fall down or blow over

What happened at the Great Northern? Why no one actually knows.

What happened cover 1

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, currently engaged in a battle to overturn or have revoked an emergency demolition order on the historic Great Northern grain elevator, has contended from the start that owner ADM's submittals in support of demolition were far from ironclad. Buffalo Commissioner of Permits & Inspections Jim Comerford testified in court that he relied, in part, on the "engineering reports" provided by ADM in making his decision to require the emergency demolition of the giant waterfront landmark—the world's oldest electrically powered grain elevator, and the very last of its kind (a brick-clad working-house elevator, which gives it its distinctive profile in Buffalo's renowned industrial landscape). Now it seems ADM's reports are thin-sliced baloney.

Tim Tielman, Campaign executive director, asked SUNY Distinguished Professor Andrew Whittaker of UB's Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering what should be in a condition assessment of buildings such as Buffalo's "outstanding collection of 1860-1920 industrial and commercial architecture," in order to aid the Campaign in evaluating the structures. Dr. Whittaker has spent his adult life figuring out why buildings fall down, stand up, and can be made to keep standing. His response throws more doubt on the usefulness of the ADM material to come to any conclusions about the condition of the Great Northern or whether those conditions require an emergency demolition.

Dr. Whittaker, a registered California civil and structural engineer and a Fellow of the Structural Engineering Institute, responded by email and provided an eight-point list of what should be included in a condition assessment of an older building. There may be additional information needed for a particular assessment. Dr. Whittaker's eight points were:

  1. Review of as-built drawings and calculations, and construction photographs, if available.
  2. Walkdown of the building to document the as-built construction, including the elements of the gravity- and lateral-load-resisting systems (i.e., for wind and earthquake loadings), and non-structural elements.
  3. Survey of the building to confirm physical geometry (e.g., floor elevations, envelope shape), reinforcement of concrete elements, etc.
  4. Testing of in-situ material properties (e.g., steel framing, masonry and grouting, timber, concrete and reinforcement) sufficient in scope to inform mathematically modeling of the gravity- and lateral-force-resisting systems.
  5. Documentation of foundations and condition, if as-built drawings are not available.
  6. Development of a 3D mathematical model of the building, using information from the above steps, sufficient for analysis of the building for gravity and lateral loads.
  7. Analysis of the 3D model for gravity and lateral loadings.
  8. Performance evaluation of elements of the gravity- and lateral-load-resisting systems, and non-structural elements (e.g., cladding, interior masonry walls).

None of these were provided in any of the reports ADM placed before Comerford. Comerford made no attempt to get any other information from outside his office, nor did he return phone calls from Paul McDonnell, an architect and president of the Campaign, and Tim Tielman, Campaign executive director, who sought to discuss the building with him in the days after the windstorm of Dec. 11 during which a part of the north cladding wall failed. The question is, what didn't Comerford know, and why didn't he know it?

One thing is certain, based on court testimony, ADM documents, and now Dr. Whittaker's Eight Points: No one can actually knows what happened at the north wall of Great Northern, or whether its condition requires demolition, much less that it constitutes an emergency. McDonnell sent the mayor a detailed letter  on Sunday pointing out the lack of reliability in the ADM documents and Comerford's interpretation of video and photographs. The Campaign has submitted affidavits and argued that netting and fencing could abate any hazard from falling debris that might occur while repairs and further understanding of the condition of the Great Northern can be obtained.

The Mayor should revoke the demo permit and cite ADM for its serious building code violations and order them repaired. That places liability back on ADM, abates any public danger, and gets the landmark repaired.



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