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Preventing the Next Millennium Tower

Nov. 1, 2018

CEO of HappyCo, Jindou Lee, explains how mobile inspections can avert future problems and mitigate risk.

I don’t have to look far to see what happens when a construction project goes sideways — literally sideways. Less than two miles from my office in San Francisco is the Millennium Tower, a monument to modern luxury urban living and a metaphor for what happens when everything goes wrong.

As dozens of parties sue and countersue each other, it’s important to consider that a different approach to inspections during the building process could have prevented most of today’s problems before they became catastrophic.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Millennium Tower is part of a complex that includes more than 450 condo units. As one might expect of a luxury property in San Francisco, it’s a pretty pricey place to live (the most expensive unit sold for $13 million), and by the time the entire building reached capacity the owners had cleared a profit of more than $150 million. So far, so good.

Until the building started to tilt and sink.

In June 2015, two years after the final unit sold, Millennium Tower was found to have significant structural issues. Property owners panicked, afraid not only for their physical safety but also for the safety of their investments.

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In the last five years, there has been a flurry of legal action as the residents, builders, contractors, project managers and other parties try to deflect blame and protect themselves from financial losses. Adding to the drama is that the builders allegedly knew about the problem even before construction was completed.

That’s where digital inspections could have changed the entire project’s course and its tumultuous aftermath.

Inspections Answer Questions

It’s almost impossible to “peel the onion” after a building is finished. That’s because vital information may be buried under thousands of tons of concrete and steel.

For example, if a pipe bursts, crews may need to use jackhammers to get to the source of the problem. This is not something that property companies do lightly, which is why it’s pretty close to impossible to figure out what actually went wrong, if anyone was at fault and (if the answer is yes) who was to blame for a problem.

That’s why it’s critical to inspect properties at every stage of construction. Of course, inspections do take place, but they usually only involve a checklist to determine if work was completed. That may be convenient in the short term, but as the Millennium Tower fiasco shows us, regular inspections don’t prevent future problems or provide ironclad proof of responsibility — this is where mobile inspections that include photographs can make a multi-million-dollar difference.

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At some point, someone made a mistake when Millennium Tower was being built. That’s not even up for debate.

But the real mistake was not documenting every single step so that when problems were revealed several years after the fact, experts could pinpoint exactly when the mistakes occurred and who (if anyone) should be held responsible.

Today’s pinwheel of lawsuits is the predictable result of not taking this basic step more than a decade ago. As the old-age saying goes, the chickens have come home to roost...even if their eggs are rolling across the floor because the building is tilting.

Photos + Inspections: A Perfect Pair

One of the failures of the construction of the Millennium Tower was ineffective documentation. 48 Hills reports that two binders of key documents have gone missing, and no party involved can find any copies. This has intensified the legal conflict and made it harder for officials to locate the source of Millennium Tower’s failures.

This is the exact problem that digital inspections solve, by integrating data into a digital database for safekeeping. That integration is seamless thanks to phone- and tablet-based platforms that allow inspectors to instantly associate photographs with every stage of a project under construction.

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This gives everyone ironclad proof of what happened, even years after the fact, making it possible to virtually dig through concrete and see where problems may have existed during the construction process. This removes most of the guesswork and conjecture, and it gives all parties real insight into the root causes of issues rather than giving attorneys years of (expensive) work to try to reverse-engineer problems.

Inspections that include photos mean the difference between opinion and fact when it comes to determining fault in a construction project. And no matter what your role may be in a particular project, that peace of mind is well worth the cost.

Jindou Lee is CEO of HappyCo, a San Francisco-based technology company that builds mobile and cloud solutions to enable real-time property operations.

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