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CROSS Safety Report

Acoustic ceiling collapse in cinema

Report ID: 101 Published: 1 April 2008 Region: CROSS-UK

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Overview

A reporter writes about the failure of a mass barrier acoustic ceiling at a cinema complex in a major UK city a few years ago.

Key Learning Outcomes

For civil and structural design engineers:

  • Connections can often be the weak link in structures and attention to detail is required
  • Careful consideration is required for fixings, particularly at interfaces between different materials. The role of tolerances should not be overlooked.
  • An attribute of safety is to assure that the design is not disproportionately vulnerable to minor error

For construction professionals:

  • Quality control and competent supervision on site can ensure ceiling systems are installed in accordance with the design

Full Report

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A reporter writes about the failure of a mass barrier acoustic ceiling at a cinema complex in a major UK city some few years ago. The heavy ceiling was suspended by drop rods fixed to a U section channel system attached to the underside of a composite steel deck and in-situ concrete slab. 

The design was for each rod to be connected to a nut with a washer over a pre-formed hole in the bottom of the channel. In practice the washers were too small; one (or more) pulled through its hole, initiating a progressive collapse of the whole ceiling.

At the time the cinema was operational but fortunately the auditorium was empty, so no one killed or injured. It appeared to the reporter that there was an overall lax attitude to the installation of a heavy ceiling system, there was reliance on a suspect fixing arrangement and there was no evidence of inspection or supervision of the installation.

Expert Panel Comments

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This and other similar reports demonstrate a concerning trend of progressive collapse mechanisms in public buildings where there is a high probability of casualties in the event of failure. In each case there has been a fault, or a combination of faults, in the design, selection or installation of fixings, and a lack of appreciation of the magnitude of the dead loads from acoustic ceilings.

Inspection of fixings

These would have been compounded because it is not usually possible to inspect the fixings after installation. The danger of falling ceilings is not new; there is old cinematographic legislation that was brought in because of failures with lath and plaster ceiling fixings. The Home Office document ‘Recommendations on Safety in Cinemas 1955’, and which is still relevant says: ‘Ceilings shall be in such a condition as not to cause a danger to persons visiting the premises’.

Ceilings shall be in such a condition as not to cause a danger to persons visiting the premises.

There are other examples where the failure of a single component must not compromise the whole; for example, cable stayed bridges are designed so failure of one stay does not cause the bridge to come down. Similarly, what is needed for heavy ceilings is a robust design with a sensible appreciation by designers of the importance of what might appear to be trivial structural detail.

Responsible party

There must be a sound design tracing load paths back to a solid platform with a responsible person in charge. It may be that guidance there should be provided in Part A of the building regulations in a similar manner to the existing guidance on cladding systems.

CROSS has been concerned about fixings of various kinds for some time and these collapses illustrate very well the ‘3Ps’ promulgated by CROSS to illustrate the wide causes of failure:

People

Those involved exhibiting a lack of structural engineering competence such that the safety critical implications of the work were not recognised.

Process

Lack of attention given to the procurement of the work and in particular to ensure that one competent party is responsible for the overall design. A failure to appreciate that these support systems are just as important as primary structural members. Lack of supervision and checking of installations.

Product

Specification (or choice) of the wrong product i.e. not fit for purpose.

Fixing failures such as the 1981 Hyatt Hotel walkway collapse in which 114 people died demonstrate the magnitude of tragedies that can unfold.

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