It’s been just one year since the City of Los Angeles enacted its earthquake retrofit ordinance. At the time, there were just a handful of seismic retrofit companies doing business locally. Today, there are many.

This sudden influx of startups has led to concern among those in the industry that some of these new companies may be more opportunistic than professional in nature. It can be confusing when you’ve got several companies knocking at your door to do business. How can you tell who’s legitimate and who’s not?

Selecting a Retrofit CompanyThe following steps will help to ensure that not only are you selecting a reputable firm to do the work, but that the process followed is one that will bring you the optimum results for the safety of your tenants and protection of your building.

Design Build versus Design Bid Build

The first thing to do before starting your project is to decide the approach you would like to take to getting it done.

We recommend the design-bid-build approach, which calls for an independent engineering study before any other work orders or contracts are signed.

Design-bid-build means you get an independent engineering study done first to determine the retrofit plan that addresses the unique characteristics of your building, and then you go out with your complete set of plans to get bids from contractors on the same scope of work.

The City of Los Angeles advises the owners of soft-story apartment buildings to hire an engineer or architect who is licensed in the state of California to evaluate the strength of the building and to develop plans for its seismic strengthening in compliance with the city ordinance.

The engineering study enables a building owner to get a thorough, independent written description of the work needed so they can use that to get apples-to-apples bid comparisons among several retrofit companies.

Remember: First you design, then you bid, then you build… Design. Bid. Build.

In the design-build process, the contractor assigned or asked to do the work makes his or her own engineering recommendations and submits a bid for the project based on work that might vary from one contractor to the next. This kind of apples-to-oranges approach makes it difficult to compare bids when each company is taking a different approach to the project.

The design-build process also leaves open the possibility of change orders or unexpected work that will increase the original price of your project. Having an engineering study up front makes it clear exactly what work is needed to minimize the need for change orders later on.

Do a Background Check

First and foremost, be sure that the engineer, architect or contractor you plan to hire is licensed by the state.

The State Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors and Geologists maintains a database of the names of individuals with professional licenses with the state. Visit for more information. If the name you’re searching for isn’t there, you can call 1-866-780-5370 to make sure the omission is not due to a clerical error.

The California Architects Board lists licensed architects at

The California Contractors State License Board keeps a database of all licensed and insured contractors at

Once you have ensured that your contractor of choice is licensed and insured, here are some other precautions to take to ensure you’re selecting the right person for the job:

Ask for references and contact them to hear about their experiences with the contractor.

Visit their project sites if you can.

Make certain the contractor has completed at least three projects similar to yours in the past year.

The Importance of Engineering

Why is all of this so important?

Every building is different when it comes to earthquake retrofits. This is especially true for soft-story structures – buildings with parking on the ground floor and dwelling units built above it.

Engineering studies identify the most effective and economical option for each individual property.
They pinpoint the precise scope of work to be done so apartment owners can use that information to get multiple bids on a project that is mathematically and technically verified to work. (Be sure to ask ahead of time if the engineering firm you plan to work with will provide you with their complete set of recommended plans. If not, go find someone else to do the job.)
Engineering studies avoid permitting delays and/or the need for costly revisions later on.
They provide the greatest option for safety, protecting both you and your tenants.
Doing the job right helps to reduce liabilities later on, should something go wrong.
The City of Los Angeles wants proof that a structure was thoroughly inspected and analyzed, and that the work proposed for the structure is the most effective approach given the individual specifics for each building. Several other cities are considering earthquake ordinances of their own and will be following the same essential guidelines.

The first step is to create what is called “as-built” drawings of the structure. These illustrations indicate all details of the building and highlight changes made from the original construction documents. In instances where the original documents are no longer available, the complete layout of the building must be created from scratch.

Regardless of whether original documents are available, the as-built drawings will require extensive measuring and mapping. They will highlight all design changes, including pipe and duct routing and sizing, relocation of walls and distribution systems, shut-off locations, and weight-bearing modifications. New windows, doors and other changes will also be noted to safeguard against the possibility of missing changes that may have compromised the integrity of the structure.

The as-built drawings, once completed, will bring your building up-to-date, should you choose to make any remodeling or design changes later on.

The engineering study will also include an extensive site survey to see what materials are used throughout the building. Everything from the spacing between the windows to the composition and flexibility of the walls is factored into the design of the project.

This ensures the most effective plan in terms of both cost and stabilization for each individual property.

It also ensures that you are getting the work needed to strengthen your building, and that’s important.

Don’t find yourself falling victim to the whims of a fly-by-night operation. Be sure to do your due diligence, and insist on an independent engineering study to make sure your building is getting the kind of fortification it needs.