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From Hyatt to Rubble - Part I

Updated on September 20, 2017
DanDnAZ profile image

Registered Architect, 40 years experience, investigative forensic specialist, engineering trained, college teacher, NCARB mentor, MBA.

For many, I have not been around here much. As those of you that have read my other hubs, I have spent the last 20 months gaining my degree. I am please to say that I have now completed that journey, and will be embarking on my MBA. Meanwhile, my final project for my degree was a research project on the collapse of the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City in 1981. Since I am a Registered Architect this is from that perspective, not the typical engineering perspective that has been done many, many times. This information, in five parts, will be useful to Architects, clients, and many others. Hope you enjoy and learn from what you are about to read.

Introduction of Author

At the age of seventeen, in January 1978, I walked into an Architect’s office at the opening of my apprenticeship, staring at still six more months before my high school graduation, but there I was exactly where I had wanted to be since the seventh grade, my course charted and laid in. Little did I know that in three and a half short years, an event would occur that would shape me as the professional that I was eventually to become. Unbeknownst to me, that event started to unfold, at that very same time, a thousand miles away in Kansas City, Missouri. The design was wrapping up on the Hyatt Regency, with construction to begin in just a couple months, May of that year (Texas A & M, 2012).

The Hyatt was to be Kansas City’s tallest building at the time, rising forty stories into the heavens. At its center was an atrium that was open, 117 feet by 146 feet, and 50 feet tall (over 4 stories) (Texas A & M, 2012, NBS, p. 1, #1.1) with three hovering skywalks as if they were floating above the atrium’s floor, suspended from the atrium’s roof. The second floor skywalk suspended under the fourth floor skywalk, and the third floor skywalk offset from the pair. This was to be an architectural wonder in the revitalized Kansas City downtown, rebounding from the ravages of recession.

Overview Background / History

Design of the Hyatt commenced in 1976 by Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., using PBNDML Architects, with the structural engineering firm of G.C.E. International, Inc., formerly known as Jack D. Gillum & Associates, Ltd., with owner Jack Gillum, and Project Engineer, Daniel Duncan. The project had a cost of $50 million, with an architectural fee of $1,650,000 (Administration Hearing, p. 7, #11), or about 3.3% of the construction cost. That fee was below the expected standard 5% fee for architectural services (Guthrie, p. 507). The Structural engineer’s fee was $247,500 (Administration Hearing, p. 7, #11), or about 15% of the architectural fee. This structural engineering fee was well above the expected 1 – 2.5% of the architectural fee (Guthrie, p. 3) reflecting the complexity of this project. As an Architect myself, my conclusion is that the engineering fee would be reflective of the project’s intricacies, and that the engineering firm was not underpaid for their services.

The Hyatt Regency was constructed under a relatively “new” delivery system, referred to as “fast track”. This is a system where the actual construction begins before the design of the project is completed, to allow the owner to capture savings on the rising cost of construction by shortening the overall project timeline (Administration Hearing, p. 68, #118, National Geographic, time mark 1:06). May 1978, construction commences on the Hyatt (Administration Hearing, p. 4, #5, National Geographic, time mark 00:47). During the construction of the Hyatt, in October 14, 1979, part of the atrium’s roof collapsed (Texas A & M, 2012, Administration Hearing, p. 13, #21). A second engineering firm was brought in to investigate the cause of that collapse (Administration Hearing, p. 13, #21). At that time, it was discovered that the structural drawings prepared by Gullim and Duncan did not have the expansion capabilities that the architectural drawings required (Administration Hearing, p. 77, #135 through p. 78, #137) for the atrium’s roof, but this had no effect on the roof collapse at that time.

Construction was completed and the Hyatt opened for business in July of 1980 (Texas A & M, 2012, National Geographic, time mark 2:20). July 17, 1981, at 7:05 PM local time, supporting box beam channels failed allowing connecting rods to pull through the middle of the upper skywalk on the east side, at the location designated as 9UE (NBS, p. vi, and Figure 3.15, p. 31), and the west

NBS Report, Figure 3.15, p. 31
NBS Report, Figure 3.15, p. 31

side of skywalk, location designated 9UW. According to eyewitness reports, simultaneous failure at location 9UE and the opposite end at location 9UW box beam, started a “zipper” effect collapse allowing the upper (4th) floor skywalk to collapse on the lower (2nd) floor skywalk, which then collapsed onto the atrium floor. Most deaths and injuries came from individuals that were under the skywalks on the atrium floor and the 2nd floor skywalk (NBS, p. v). This was the worst engineering failure in the U.S. up to that time, killing 114 people and injuring 216 (ASCE, 2012). As a result of this event, Engineers Gillum and Duncan had their Structural Engineering Registrations revoked by the Missouri Board for Architects, Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors in November 1985, for gross negligence and unprofessional conduct (Administration Hearing, p. 442). The final major change, as a result of this event, came when the American Society of Civil Engineering re-wrote their rules placing the entire responsibility for the design of structures on the Engineer, making a very clear statement to the engineers that this is your responsibility (National Geographic, time mark 45:19).

Timeline of Events
Timeline of Events

Thesis of Report

Although the entire fault for this event has been placed exclusively on Engineers Gillum and Duncan, the responsibility for assembling the design team rests solely on the Architect, who selects those very team members. As the conductor of the design team orchestra, what can the Architect do to enhance the reduction of such failures by consulting engineers and specialists on a project, and allow the orchestra to complete its symphony successfully? Could, or should, the Architect have raised questions and demanded more action from the engineer that might have averted this event? What misconceptions do architects have that would designate such implicit trust in the consulting team? What restrictions exist that would prohibit the architect from taking a more influential role in the decision making process for issues like those in the Hyatt Regency? What lessons can be learned and applied by the design team leader, the Architect?

In short, the Architect needs a guide for those times when a consultant fails a project, in order to protect the integrity of the project as a whole. The following analysis will look at the collapse of the Hyatt Regency, but not from an Engineer’s perspective, that has already been done numerous times. This analysis comes from the perspective of an Architect. This event has made huge changes in the way architecture has been practiced in the subsequent three decades, but much of those changes have to be questioned as to how effective they have been in attaining the intended goals for those changes and how those changes protect the public’s health safety, and general welfare (Arizona Revised Statutes §32-101(A)).


Much of this discussion will center on three areas, beginning with the human behavior of the participants before, during, and after the collapse of the skywalks, looking at the steps the Architect can do, before executing 20-20 hindsight, to redirect or avert a repeat of these critical mistakes. This will be followed by a look at the human expression of the participants during that same period and how the Architect might have influenced a different outcome to these events. Finally, a look at the ethics of the participants up to and after the collapse unfolded. Remember that although some of the engineering forensics will be part of this discussion; this discussion will not be looking at the issues in the same perspective as most other reports written on this engineering failure. It is hoped that this will implant into the minds of Architects a thought process that will allow the Architect to become more valuable to the client and public. Vision is always best in 20-20 hindsight, but all professionals are required to find a way to apply the lessons learned as a means to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

Picture of collapse from website
Picture of collapse from website

Human Behavior

The most important part of the human behavior aspect in this event is that some people will choose self preservation when ominous ramifications results from their actions. In ethical theory terms this would be called individual ethical egoism(Thiroux, p. 37). The danger with the application of this ethical standard by individuals is that, many times it results in an adversarial approach to problem solving; I have witnessed that result many times in my own career. To illustrate this, from this particular event are the assurances after the initial atrium roof failure that Engineers Gillum and Duncan represented to Keith Kelly, the owner’s representative, that all the connections were reviewed and deemed acceptable (Administration Hearing, p. 91, #159). Gillum and Duncan also made this same representation to the Architect (Administration Hearing, p. 97, #169). This representation was also made by Engineers Gillum and Duncan in a meeting on December 12, 1979, although Gillum later testified that he did not make such a representation (Administration Hearing, p. 94, #164). This was not the only time that Engineers Gillum and Duncan denied something that many others agreed with as contrary to their claims. It is difficult to accept someone’s word when so many others heard something so different. This will be explored more in the ethics section of this report.

The Architect needs to have this human nature in mind every time the selection of a consultant is made. When the chips are down, and your back is against the wall, the integrity of the project rests squarely on the reactions of all the parties when major or catastrophic events occur. After the failure of the atrium roof and two Engineering firms concluded that the collapse was largely a result of construction defects (Administration Hearing, p. 84, #147); Engineers Gillum and Duncan became aware that some information had been missed during the shop drawing review performed by them on the Hyatt project (Administration Hearing, p. 83, #146); however both of them failed to go back and make a thorough review of the drawings at that time, which should have been their first act after the roof collapse and the subsequent discover of missed designed element. This should have flagged a problem that both Gillum and Duncan should have investigated more completely, yet they refused to take such action, while representing to others that they had completed such a review. Why did they not perform a more thorough review? Why did the Architect not demand more proof of their claims? These issues will be explored more in the ethics section of this report.

© 2012 Dan Demland


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