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Project Risk And The Leaning Tower Of San Francisco

My travels for work took me to San Francisco recently and I couldn’t wait to get my eyes on something that has been the talk of the building community: the Leaning Tower of San Francisco, otherwise known as the Millennium Tower.

The Tower is an upscale residential skyscraper filled with more than 400 condominiums ranging in price from $1M to more than $10M and housing prominent figures like football legend Joe Montana. But that’s not why people are talking about it. They’re talking about it because it’s sunk 16″ and tilted 2″ at the base since its completion in 2008 and continues to sink at the rate of about an inch every year.

It’s nearly impossible to see the tilt with the naked eye from the outside but inside, it’s a different story. At the penthouse, the tilt is about 12“. One resident posted a video demonstrating what happens when she hits a golf ball. No matter which way she hits the ball, it always ends up in the same corner.

Having a civil engineering background, this is fascinating to me. I’m genuinely curious to learn the reason for the tilt. Being in my position at Newforma, I’m exceptionally interested to watch the story unfold because the truth behind why it is the way it is lies in the data. The way various teams and individual team members managed their project data will contribute to the outcome, at the very least proving decisions made and the people that made them. The way teams managed the data will also determine how quickly all the parties will be able to come to a unified conclusion and it will have an impact on how much or how little will have to be paid in attorney and discovery fees to uncover pertinent pieces of data.

To me, there are several factors related to risk with this project. Did all team members keep updated records, drawings, measurements, RFIs, and emails related to the project since its inception? If so, getting to the bottom of the issue will be an easier path. But if the data behind the decisions has not been managed well, this could compound an already nightmarish risk scenario.

Tarnished image

In my research for this article, I read several instances that a representative was “unavailable for comment” and the website for the Tower appears to have been taken offline.

At the time of this writing, the Millennium Tower only has 2.4 out of 5 stars on Google Review. Regarding the lean of the building, one reviewer stated, “Dogs love it. Balls roll on their own.” Another reviewer called for the city’s building inspectors to “be blamed as well.” There are jokes about people sliding off their beds at night and not having to travel to Pisa to see a leaning tower.

All kidding aside, this is a problem. It’s a problem because the expectations of the residents and the city aren’t aligned with that of the final product. And tarnishing images is the tip of the iceberg.

Why is it happening?

There are two popular competing theories for why this has happened yet only time and data will tell the full story. In the first theory, some have proposed that the issue involves the materials and foundation chosen since the building is made of concrete (not steel) and the piles aren’t resting on bedrock. The second theory alleges that the excess settlement was caused by dewatering that took place for a neighboring transit center. Not only are there ideas for why it’s happening but some have suggestions for remediation.


Even though the building is leaning, it’s been deemed safe for occupancy. But safety isn’t the only factor at play here. While some settlement is expected to occur, the depth and the rate at which the building is sinking has greatly exceeded expectations. Projections called for the building to settle about 4″–6″ for the lifetime of the building, nowhere near the current 16″.

Because of this, some residents wonder how they will be able to sell their undesirable leaning condos while others wonder about the more immediate effects of a strong earthquake.

Mega lawsuit(s)

At the time of this writing, a string of lawsuits has been brought forward by the residents, the city supervisor and most recently, the homeowners association asking for amounts up to $500M and including as many as 200 plaintiffs. The laundry list of blame extends to the developer Millennium Partners, Mission Street Development LLC (an affiliate of the developer), the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, and myriad contractors. By the time this is over, we’ll likely see more companies named—not just the primes—including other partners, affiliates and subs.

Part of the concern residents have is that they weren’t made aware of the tilt until several years after the issue was uncovered. About five years later, in fact.

Time will tell what happened, and why. With luck, we can all learn from it.

From a risk standpoint, what do you think could have been done differently? When it comes to project information, are you confident that your current processes put you in a position to defend a case of this magnitude?

See how a leading design firm avoids litigation by using project information management software.


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