Christmas Eve Chaos: Evacuation of Sydney Opal Tower

12/27/2018 | By Rachel Kats

A clatter arose on Christmas Eve for the residents of the Sydney Opal Tower, located in the Sydney Olympic Park. Audible cracking noises and visible cracks appeared; drywall and plaster crumbled and collected around doorframes and doors became jammed.

According to police, a crack in a load-bearing concrete panel caused the building to shift 1 to 2 millimeters. Reports indicate that approximately 3,000 people were evacuated from the 34-story building.

On Christmas, emergency authorities and Australian developer Ecove assured residents that there was no risk of collapse and allowed about two-thirds of the residents to return to the building.

“Buildings like that go through all sorts of checks and balances. The only other option is that something underneath the building has changed. That could well create tensions through the structure itself.” - Chris Johnson, Urban Taskforce chief executive

However, The Guardian reported just two days later that the building contractor, Icon, announced all residents would again be relocated so the entire building could be investigated and repaired. The company stressed that the building was still structurally sound and no residents were in danger.

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“The temporary relocation is a precautionary measure to allow engineers to work around the clock to investigate and remediate the site in the quickest time possible,” a statement said.

What Happened at Sydney Opal Tower?

The Sydney Opal Tower opened in August 2018 and was given the green light under the Government of New South Wales’ significant development legislation. This gives major developers a way of side-stepping council approval, according to the Australian Broadcasting Network. The development legislation was created to address the major housing shortage in areas such western Sydney — the area where the tower is located.

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The reason for the fault is currently unknown but some speculate a lack of oversight or poor planning may have been the cause. Others think it may be the result of building on swamp land, according to msn.com.

Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson told the Sydney Morning Herald that the problem could be the result of a “fundamental error” in how the building was constructed or the ground it was built on.

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“It’s a bit bewildering to me that something like this could happen,” he said. “Buildings like that go through all sorts of checks and balances. The only other option is that something underneath the building has changed. That could well create tensions through the structure itself.”

Although the apartment is at no risk of collapse, the alarming event raises questions about the structural integrity of the buildings in which we live, work and play. Issues can appear at any stage, age and in any size facility.

How Structural Issues Are Revealed

Sometimes unseen issues reveal themselves in sudden, disastrous failures, and some are discovered and addressed through preventative maintenance. Common causes include:

  • Human or design error
  • Lack of maintenance
  • Poor materials
  • Inappropriate modifications
  • Environmental wear and tear

On a positive note, there are ways to prevent structural failures. A feature article published in the American Society of Civil Engineers Library, titled “Structural Failures and How to Prevent Them,” by Dov Kaminetzky, outlines how to prevent or reduce the likelihood of structural failures through the following:

  • Competent design
  • Clear communication of that design to the contractor by means of engineering drawings, etc.
  • Careful and competent construction
  • Effective construction supervision

“Further, designers and contractors need feedback from past structural failures, so they won’t repeat someone else’s mistakes,” the abstract states.

In the unfortunate event that a structural issue does occur, it’s important to keep the health and safety of people within the facility top of mind and to have a proper evacuation plan in place and clearly communicate it.


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