Optimum Seismic was recently asked to make a formal presentation about earthquake retrofits and building safety at a meeting of CALBO, the California Building Officials association. The organization was curious to learn more about process, various laws already in place, financing options and the impacts on insurance and tenant habitability.

Based on the high level of interest among the building officials there, it was clear that cities throughout the state are concerned about their duty to protect the general welfare of the public in the event of a major earthquake.

Why? We all remember the destruction that occurred in 1994 when Northridge suffered a devastating 6.7-magnitude earthquake: freeways crumbled, apartment buildings collapsed and, as a result, more than 60 people were killed, 9,000 people injured and $25 billion in damage was reported.

It’s a lesser-known fact that an estimated 49,000 housing units in Northridge alone were rendered uninhabitable from the Northridge quake.

The city of Santa Monica lost some 5 percent of its total housing units in the same epic tremor.
In both instances, the vast majority of structures lost were wood-framed, soft-story buildings.
Santa Monica was the first city to adopt earthquake safety standards, and is currently in the process of updating its codes.

The city of Beverly Hills is considering an earthquake retrofit ordinance with that in mind, requiring seismic retrofits on all soft story structures built before 1978.

“The proposed ordinance,” city officials wrote in a report to the Planning Commission, “would improve public safety by reducing the risk of collapse and subsequent death or injury in an earthquake. However, the ordinance would also protect the public welfare by reducing the loss of wood frame apartment buildings which are currently the city’s most affordable housing stock.”

With Southern California already in a housing crunch, the prospect of losing such a significant number of housing units can stifle a community and reap disaster for its citizens.

That’s why there are an increasing number of cities throughout Southern and Northern California adopting ordinances designed to not only save lives, but to protect the infrastructure that provides their constituencies with a place to live.

The Short List

Here in California, we know: It’s just a matter of time until the next Big One strikes. That’s why many cities – San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles to name a few – have adopted ordinances requiring retrofits of pre-1978 soft-story structures, those with open parking on the ground floor and residential or office units above.

Los Angeles County, Santa Clara County and the cities of West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, San Jose, Alameda, Richmond and Fremont are considering ordinances of their own. The Structural Engineers Association of California estimates there may be as many as 100,000 buildings in Southern California alone facing comparable mandates as other cities and counties consider adopting retrofit laws like those already enacted in other parts of the state.

These cities recognize the potential not only of massive death and injury, but also of the chaos that could ensue if an earthquake of historic proportions were to strike and record numbers of buildings were destroyed.

The city of West Hollywood is in the process of enacting an ordinance that is more comprehensive than other ordinances, in that it pertains to four types of building structures instead of just one or two. The ordinance, which will take effect on July 1, 2017, would require:

  • Mandatory retrofits of soft story buildings built before 1978
  • Voluntary seismic strengthening provisions for cripple walls and sill plate anchorage in wood-frame buildings
  • Mandatory seismic strengthening provisions for non-ductile concrete buildings built before 1979
  • Mandatory seismic strengthening provisions for steel moment frame buildings built prior to the Northridge Quake

Avoiding Widespread Calamity

Major earthquakes are notorious for disrupting and destroying lives. But the impacts are lessened significantly with updated building codes.

The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, estimated at 7.8 on the Richter scale, killed about 3,000 and displaced as many as 300,000 people who were left homeless from the destruction.

Many people fled the city. Many more set up camps and shantytowns, where they lived for years during the city’s arduous reconstruction.

Today, because of improved building regulations, the damage caused from earthquakes is much less than what it was in the past. The United States Geological Services estimates that more than $30 billion has been invested in the Bay Area alone to retrofit buildings, replace bridges and other infrastructure to make it more resilient against earthquakes.

But we also have not experienced an earthquake of the same or greater magnitude as that infamous San Francisco Quake of more than 100 years ago. Our most recent major seismic disasters – in Loma Prieta and Northridge – measured 6.9 and 6.7 respectively.

Given the exponential nature of the ascending Richter scale and seismologists’ predictions that we are long overdue for an earthquake of epic proportions, an increasing number of cities are taking action to be prepared.

As the Preferred Supplier of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, Optimum Seismic has been working to help inform the public about the new ordinances and to educate apartment owners on the steps they need to take to comply with the law.  In addition to our recent presentation at CALBO, we have been presenting at community workshops coordinated through AAGLA, as well as at many industry-related events.

If you have questions about the requirements under the law, the retrofit process or general questions regarding your building, we encourage you to contact us for an evaluation. We are giving $2,000 discounts on engineering to all AAGLA members.