Sampoong Superstore Failure, 1995

Subject: Technology
Type: Informative Essay
Pages: 5
Word count: 1359
Topics: Architecture, Construction, Design, Engineering, Ethics, Innovation


The Sampoong Department store in Seoul, South Korea collapsed in 1995 June completely causing the death of 502 individuals, 6 missing persons and 937 people to sustain injuries. The building was a five story store that was reinforced by concrete (RC), with underground four floors. The design was based on the concept of flat slab. The collapse of the story store made engineers to investigate the cause of the failure through observing all the key elements that were directly linked to the failure such as the survey of the ground conditions after the collapse, the strength test that were conducted for the concrete and steel that was collected at the site, the original design documents and reports that covered the construction management and the structural analysis made during the erection of the building. The structure failed due to excess direct and indirect causes including flaws that were in the design, construction mistakes and overlapping of steps that are followed in management of construction process (Marshall, 2017).

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Structural Failure

The original plan of the building was to construct a departmental store that will be composed of a four story apartment complex. The work began and after some floors the owner of the store Lee Joon made a poor professional decision of switching the building from a residential complex to a commercial building. This decision made the engineers to consider the removal of some supporting columns to offer room for the escalators. The contractor refused to apply the changes and they were immediately replaced by another contracting company to take the job. The removal of the columns to offer room for the escalator caused a reduced strength of the building. The remaining columns could not efficiently support both the dead and live load that was expected per calculations (Starossek, 2008). The bending moment at the far ends of the bottom floors could no longer hold the downwards stress that was experienced and it yield with time causing the collapse (Marshall, 2017).

More stress of the structure was cause by the additional fifth floor that was originally unplanned and not in the design. More loads were to be supported by the previous calculated moments. The steel and concrete grade remained the same even with the changes. This was structurally incorrect as per the engineering profession because excess force was to be produced with the additional dead load of the fifth floor. In addition to that the owner proposed the construction of skating rink on the initial unplanned floor adding more dead load and raising the values of the live load that was to be encountered by those individuals that will use the skating rink. This was a compromising modification to the structure of the building that did not consider any engineering concepts of bending moments, loads, shear and tension forces (Marshall, 2017).

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The fifth floor was later changed into a gallery of restaurants. This added more stress on the overloaded and burned column due to the heating systems coming from the floor beneath the fifth floor that contained hot water pipes that increased the stress. This was against the zoning regulations that were in place.

Finally the structural failure was propelled faster by the installation of air-conditioning machines that were place on top of the fifth floor. This happened because their previous locations offered noise to neighbors of adjacent buildings who complained to the building authorities. The decision that was made by the management did not consider any engineering factors in shifting of the machines. The machines were not lifted by a crane but were dragged. The machines combination weight was 45 tons in weight that was four times the load the building was designed to carry as per the roof calculations. This process opened the small cracks and caused the widening of the cracks that were present through the vibrations produced by the machine when operating.

Ethical Failures that led to Collapse

It was ethical wrong for the owner of the building to order uncalculated changes to be effected during the construction of the store. The owner was going against the engineering codes of practice by ignoring vital components of the design, structural elements and load that was expected as per the original engineering designs. The owner sacked every contractor that disagreed with the additional modification to be made on the building. This was unethical and the consequences of the additional changes proved that ethical codes are essential components to be followed by professionals in the engineering sector (Marshall, 2017).

It was unethical that the owner revised that original purpose of the building with individual reasons. The initial designs were for residential complex but due to personal interest that was self-made the store was changed into a commercial building without considering the zooning area and the details produced by the original designers of the building.

Consequentially, the contractor that decided to perform services under the control of the owner who had self-motives went against the required ethical requirements as a company in the construction industry. The contractor knew that the design was compromised by the uncalculated modifications but went on to construct the store with the motivation of money and profits. This was unethical and the poorly made ethical decisions caused the death of individuals that were not aware of the emitted engineering elements in the structure as a whole (Marshall, 2017).

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Moreover, the authorities that were with the task of ensuring that engineering standards are achieved during the building of the structures acted unethically. They willingly compromised the facts that were presented by the sacked contractors about the danger posed by the building. As a government agency responsible for the maintenance of constructional standards, it was supposed to stop the construction and prohibit any further building until the required engineering elements are achieved. This did not happen and the outcome of poor ethical decisions caused loss of life, injuries and tainted the reputation of the construction companies that were involved in the project.

Broader Ethical Implications

The broader misconception in the engineering industry is that devices and innovation just happen simply through application of theories and equations in science. However it is important to note that an invention is only approved after it has convinced the eye of the engineer that it will work. Engineering lead things and science is applied to explain the relation that the incorporated components in the design are connected to each other. Through science, analysis of the invented device is achieved and the shortcomings identified. It is important that the society at large understand that the design of any invention is fraught with failure. The engineer only achieves the tolerance to the failure act through imagining how the failure can occur. A total success to avoid failures is only achieved where the specific failure is identified and prevented from happening (Petroski, 2017).

In addition to that, engineers work with numbers. This covers factors such as size, weight, thickness, heat resistances and many others. This concept explains that the designs in Engineering are ultimately the art of compromise. Engineers have several major responsibilities they face during the design and maintenance of structures. This will include ensuring that the steps of the designs are followed one after the other, the tests are done and values tried before approval, the prototype is tested before the final design and all the professional ethical decisions are followed during implementation of the project. The maintenance part should be regularly updated with data on performance of the project, data on areas that require renovation and design modifications that can be incorporated with time to ensure long life of the design (Petroski, 2017).

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Engineers are not perfect hence even after careful calculations and tests, errors can still result in the process. In  some cases, things behave in a different manner as in the laboratory thus such disastrous events still explain that even the engineers don’t have fully control of the outcome of designs and projects. It is vital to note that engineers do not feel comfortable with things they have little or no understanding thus decisions that are put in place to avoid compromising from their designs should be respected by clients.

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  1. Marshall, C. (2017). Learning from Seoul’s Sampoong Department Store disaster – a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 44. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 March 2017, from
  2. Petroski, H. (2017). Failure Is Always an Option. Retrieved 17 March 2017, from
  3. Starossek, U. (2008). Avoiding Disproportionate Collapse of Tall Buildings. Structural Engineering International, 18(3), 238-246.
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