Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Leaning Buildings of Santos, Brazil

The coastline along the city of Santos, some 80 km from Sao Paulo, in Brazil, offers a strange sight. Like dominoes about to topple, the waterfront is lined by a string of high rise apartments that are unmistakably tilted to one side.

The problem lies in Santos’ soil. Below a seven-meter layer of sand is a 30-40 meter deep bed of slippery clay that doesn't cope well with the weight of the structures. Until 1968, the local building code had no restrictions whatsoever on the type of foundation that could be used for multistory buildings. Ideally, the foundations of buildings should reach bedrock, which in the region is about 50 meters deep. But these buildings in Santos’ waterfront has foundations that are only 4 or 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) deep. After the leaning in the first building became visible, there was realization that the practice of placing tall buildings on shallow footings could not continue, and a requirement was added to Santos building code to use deep foundation for tall buildings.

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An aggravating factor is that many buildings are closely located to one another, so the settlement caused by buildings constructed next to existing buildings most likely contributed to the lean, at least, in some cases. The proximity of the buildings have led to a popular urban legend that the collapse of one building would trigger a domino effect taking down other buildings with it. Specialists deny such catastrophe could ever happen, as buildings tend to collapse vertically.

Surprisingly, people continue to live in these apartments. Although they have to deal with everyday problems like shimming furniture, rolling balls, and the inability to fill a cup of coffee all the way to the top.

In all, there are close to a hundred buildings that tilt at scary angles. The buildings lean between 0.5 meters (1 feet 7 inches) and 1.8 meters (5 feet 11 inches). There was an effort some years ago to straighten some of the buildings but high cost prohibited the execution. Only one building, the Núncio Malzoni next to the Pinacoteca by Canal 4, has been put back straight. It cost the city $1.5 million.

Although residents have learned to cope with the situation, the main problem they face is devaluation of property. The prices of the condos plummeted after the lean became visible to the naked eye many years ago.

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