Fired Coral Gables inspector cites ‘dangerous conditions’ in newly opened Lakeside Village

Lakeside Village, the University's newest on-campus housing, pictured on Aug. 9. Photo credit: Jared Lennon

By Esther Animalu, investigative editor

University of Miami students recently moved into Lakeside Village, the new $153 million housing project that has state-of-the-art construction, landscaping, and, according to a lawsuit, code violations that could “result in life-threatening danger to students.”

In his lawsuit, 43-year-old Ricardo Arnau alleges that Coral Gables fired him from his position as the city’s chief mechanical officer after he refused to pass the inspection of the fire protection system at Lakeside.

Lakeside Village, the University's newest on-campus housing, pictured on Aug. 9.
Lakeside Village, the University's newest on-campus housing, pictured on Aug. 9. Photo credit: Jared Lennon

“Due to the relationship between the University of Miami and the City of Coral Gables, Plaintiff’s [Arnau] refusal to ignore the University of Miami’s code violations, the ramifications of which posed significant risks to the future residents of this housing complex, resulted in the Plaintiff being harassed, retaliated against and wrongfully terminated,” Arnau’s lawsuit states.

Arnau, who has been with the city since October 2018, said he spotted several violations of the Florida Building Code in Lakeside. Many of these infractions, he said, include serious fire hazards involving the dorms’ ducts and clothing dryers.

Arnau claims that the university and its contractor, Moss & Associates, disregarded his concerns and demands to make the necessary corrections. He also said that Peter Iglesias, the city manager of Coral Gables, pressured him to approve Lakeside Village despite its safety breaches.

“I just want someone to listen and fix these safety violations,” Arnau said. “I really do hope and pray that a fire does not happen in Lakeside Village, but if it does, it will be very bad. Lakeside is a fire tragedy waiting to happen,” he said in a phone interview with The Miami Hurricane.

For several months, Arnau said he continuously brought up his concerns to the city but was repeatedly ignored.

Arnau’s termination by the city

On Sept. 30, 2019, Arnau was fired by the city. Arnau alleges he was terminated as retaliation for trying to secure the safety of the UM students. His lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court of the 11th Judicial Circuit in February.

Arnau said that prior to blowing the whistle on dangerous conditions in Lakeside Village, he was in good standing with the city and received two positive performance evaluations in the first six months of his position.

Arnau earned his degree in mechanical engineering 17 years ago at the Higher Polytechnic Institute José Antonio Echeverría in Havana. Arnau said he also has specific experience in ductwork design and fire protection. Arnau said he later obtained his professional engineer license after relocating to Florida. He previously worked for Hammond & Associates Consulting Engineers on projects for the city of Miami Beach. Arnau said he has never been involved in any prior lawsuits.

In April 2019, Arnau notified Moss & Associates, the general contractor of the project, that its installation of the dryer ducts was not in compliance with the Florida Building Code. Thus, Arnau offered three alternatives to fixing the issue: Install the riser straight up; Install independent ducts for each dryer directly outside through the exterior wall; Or install ventless dryers that do not need exhaust ducts.

After a month had passed Arnau said it became apparent that the general contractor ignored him and continued installing the dryer ducts in an improper and dangerous manner.

Arnau maintains that the contractor and UM administration did not follow the specific guidelines of the code, which he said is a dangerous safety issue that can lead to serious problems and a potential fire outbreak.

“The code specifically says that the ducts have to be straight up with no bents,” said Arnau. “Not only were they bending the ducts but they were also joining ducts together, which is not allowed by the code. Miami-Dade Board of Rules and Appeals approved that and I don’t know why.”

Arnau continued, “On the sixth floor they were stuffing the shafts and were using alternative materials; those materials did not comply with what is in the Florida Building Code.”

Duct design creates disruptions

After only a few weeks into the fall semester, some students have complained of loud noises coming from the dryers.

Joy Motz, a junior majoring in public relations, said the noises from dryers have been incredibly loud.

“I definitely think that the dryers are noisy especially since I have the room closest to them,” said Motz, who resides on the third level of the housing complex. “I’m not sure if it’s due to some underlying issues within the building but the sounds are very noticeable.”

Arnau said he does not know what kind of noises the students are hearing. “But if it is one of the top floors, it could definitely be because of the horizontal duct design I was opposed to, and the lack of FyreWrap that also acts like insulation for the ducts,” he said.

“Also, many of the ducts were being bent on every pod where there are dryers inside of the rooms. Again this violates the safety code,” Arnau said.

Michael Gonzalez, senior project manager at Moss & Associates, was in charge of the development and construction of Lakeside Village for the general contractor. Gonzalez declined to respond to The Miami Hurricane’s questions pertaining to Arnau’s allegations of fire hazards in Lakeside Village.

“I am not able to talk about any of these allegations,” Gonzalez said in a telephone interview. “I cannot comment on schedule; I cannot comment on any issues with the city. UM has all the history on these issues and only they can comment. We [Moss & Associates] defer all press information and concerns to the owner of the property, which is UM.”

The university declined to respond to specific questions submitted by The Miami Hurricane. Instead, it issued the following statement through email:

“The health and safety of all students and employees is of paramount importance to the University of Miami, and the City of Coral Gables, one of the most stringent municipalities in the state with regard to code enforcement, rigorously reviewed the construction of Lakeside Village and approved all work after finding everything was in compliance with state and national building codes, including fire and safety codes,” the statement said.

Arnau brings second safety hazard into light

Arnau said he also blew the whistle on another safety hazard in June 2019. Within Lakeside, he said he noticed the contractor installing only one layer of FyreWrap Elite 1.5—a fire-protection wrap for ducts—despite instructions from the manufacturer stating “two layers would need to be installed in order to properly protect the students and satisfy the code,” according to the lawsuit.

“If you only use one layer of FyreWrap in this specific case, what can happen is that if there is a fire inside a duct, the duct is not going to be able to stay in place,” Arnau said. “The duct will then collapse and the fire will spread all over. All of this is a dangerous combination.”

According to Section 713.4 of the Florida Building Code, “Shaft enclosures shall have a fire-resistance rating of not less than 2 hours where connecting four stories or more, and not less than 1 hour where connecting less than four stories.”

The report received from the FyreWrap manufactures details that to accomplish the two hours from both sides, two layers are needed for this particular construction.

“The university and the contractor have documentation saying that they have to provide protection from both the inside and outside concerning the ducts,” Arnau said. “The University of Miami did not want to spend additional money on a second layer, putting the lives of all the prospective Lakeside residents at risk.”

Arnau also advised the general contractor that if the firm did not want to install a second layer of FyreWrap, it could install a flame bar duct, which is an approved alternative.

“Both the University of Miami and its general contractor rejected Arnau’s proposed alternative,” according to the lawsuit, and “when more information on the FyreWrap system was requested by the cIty, UM and Moss & Associates refused to provide it.”

Arnau reaches out for second opinions

Arnau said that he also met with the city’s fire captain, building official and engineers, who also agreed that the second layer of FyreWrap was necessary.

Daniel Amador, the captain of the Coral Gables Fire Department, refused to respond to specific questions and provided a general statement through email regarding the claims.

“Mr. Arnau has filed suit against the City of Coral Gables,” Amador said. “Therefore, the City cannot provide detailed comments at this time. The City of Coral Gables prides itself on its outstanding Building Department that follows all requirements of the Florida Building Code, as was done in this case.”

Manuel Lopez, the building official for the city of Coral Gables, refused to provide any comments in regards to Arnau’s allegations after repeated attempts by The Hurricane.

Arnau said that despite his efforts and supporting documentation, he was repeatedly harassed by city officials in their attempt to get the University of Miami’s inspection approved even with the code violations and potential danger those violations posed to students.

Pushback from city officials and UM administration

Arnau said Iglesias held several meetings with the building official and Arnau. According to the lawsuit, “the city manager [Iglesias] argued against the need for a second layer of FyreWrap, despite his lack of expertise.”

Arnau said he continued to argue against Iglesias’ claims and maintained the failure of the inspection.

“There are no fire hazards and there are no building code violations in Lakeside Village,” Iglesias said during a telephone interview. “There’s not supposed to be two layers. What there is supposed to be is what meets the building code, and this housing project satisfies the code. Everything in Lakeside is per the Florida Building Code; I have never allowed in my career anything that is not in the code. Ever.”

After weeks of meetings, a city building official overrode Arnau’s decision and approved the single-layer FyreWrap installation in Lakeside Village, the suit alleges. Arnau said he believes Iglesias caved under pressure from university administrators.

The lawsuit further says the city required the developer of the Paseo de la Riviera, a mixed-use development that Arnau also inspected, to install a second layer of FyreWrap.

“The city manager, building director, and other officials were all pushing in support of UM,” Arnau said. “A large portion of Coral Gables is the University of Miami. It’s really sad how UM is prioritizing money over the protection of its community. I sacrificed my entire career to get the truth out.”

Final takeaways

Arnau said it would cost approximately $500,000 to install a second layer of FyreWrap. However, he said that UM also had the option of discarding the ducts and installing ventless dryers, which would be much cheaper.

Arnau said he also told the university to install the riser ducts straight up through the roof, which he says is a smarter and cost effective option. However, UM wanted to have grass on the roof instead, according to Arnau.

“Because UM refused to listen to my recommendations, they are supposed to clean all the dryer exhaust ducts on a monthly basis,” Arnau said. “I don’t know if they are doing it. So they didn’t care about the money, nor safety, just maintenance, which will be super expensive.”

Despite Arnau’s findings, Iglesias continues to maintain that both the university and the city followed all standard protocols in the creation of Lakeside Village.

“Our building department nor I ever pressured anyone to do anything against the code,” said Iglesias, a UM alumnus. “Never in my career of 35 years have I ever done that, nor will that ever happen. Safety to me is the most important thing that I can ever do, I will never jeopardize the safety of anyone. There is no building at the University of Miami that we [City of Coral Gables] are aware of that does not comply with the code. Lakeside Village is safe and follows the code accordingly.”

Within the past two decades, 92 fatal fires have been documented that occurred on a college campus; these incidents have claimed the lives of 132 victims, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Arnau said that he hopes the administration will open their eyes one day and put safety first.

“At the end of the day, everything is about money, politics and power,” said Arnau. “But it only takes one accident for all of it to blow up in smoke.’

Bent ducts (silver) are violations of the Florida Building Code, asserts Arnau, shown in this photograph taken June 11, 2019. Arnau states that he reported these violations. Image provided by: Ricardo Arnau

Another view of the bent ducts that Arnau asserts are in violation of the Florida Building Code, taken on June 11, 2019. Image provided by: Ricardo Arnau

Only one out of the two necessary layers of FyreWrap is installed on the ducts, says Arnau, shown in this photograph taken on June 11, 2019. Image provided by: Ricardo Arnau

No layers of FyreWrap are installed on these ducts, in this photograph taken on June 11, 2019. Additionally, Arnau says that the dryer ducts cannot be bent or interconnected with others, as shown in this image. Image provided by: Ricardo Arnau