5 Steps to a Successful Soft-Story Retrofit

Last year, I gave a presentation at the annual National Council of Structural Engineers Associations (NCSEA) Summit in Orlando, Florida, titled “Becoming a Trusted Advisor: Communication and Selling Skills for Structural Engineers.” As this was a summit for the leaders of the structural engineers associations from across the country, I wasn’t sure how many people would find it valuable to spend their time learning about a very nontechnical topic. To my surprise and delight, the seminar ended up being standing-room only, and I was able to field some great questions from the audience about how they could improve their selling and communication skills. In the many conversations I had with the conference attendees after my presentation, the common theme was that engineers felt they needed more soft-skills training in order to better serve their clients. The problem, however, was finding the time to do so when faced with the daily grind of design work.

Structural Engineers In a Training for Seismic Retrofits

Presenting at the NCSEA Summit, I’m the tiny person in upper left hand corner.

When I started my first job as a design engineer at a structural engineering consulting firm straight out of school, I was very focused on improving and expanding my technical expertise. Whenever possible, I would attend building-code seminars, design reviews and new product solution presentations, all in an effort to learn more about structural engineering. What I found as I progressed through my career, however, was that no matter how much I learned or how hardworking I was, it didn’t really matter if I couldn’t successfully convey my knowledge or ideas to the person who really mattered most: the client.

Contractors discussing building plans with an engineer.

Contractors discussing building plans with an engineer.

How can an engineer be most effective in explaining a proposed action or solution to a client? You have to be able to effectively sell your idea by understanding the needs of your client as well as any reasons for hesitation. The importance of effective communication and persuasion is probably intuitive to anyone who’s been on the sales side of the business, but not something that occurs naturally to data-driven folks like engineers. As a result of recent legislation in California, however, structural engineers are starting to be inundated with questions from a group of folks who have suddenly found themselves responsible for seismically upgrading their properties: apartment building owners in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Imagine for a moment that you are a building owner who has received a soft-story retrofit notice under the City of Los Angeles’ Ordinance 183893; you have zero knowledge of structural engineering or what this term “soft-story” even means. Who will be your trusted advisor to help you sort it out? The City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) has put together a helpful mandatory ordinance website that explains the programs and also offers an FAQ for building owners that lets them know the first step in the process: hire an engineer or architect licensed in the state of California to evaluate the building.

Simpson Strong-Tie Structural Engineer Annie Kao at a jobsite.

Checking out some soft story buildings in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times has a great map tool.

I’ve had the opportunity to be the first point of contact for a building owner after they received a mandatory notice, because it turns out some relatives own an apartment building with soft-story tuck-under parking. Panicked by the notice, they called me looking to understand why they were being forced to retrofit a building that “never had any problems in the past.” They were worried they would lose rent money due to tenants needing to relocate, worried about how to meet the requirements of the ordinance and, most importantly, worried about how much it was going to cost them. What they really wanted was a simple, straightforward answer to their questions, and I did my best to explain the necessity behind retrofitting these vulnerable buildings and give an estimated time frame and cost that I had learned from attending the first Los Angeles Retrofit Resource Fair in April 2016. With close to 18,000 buildings in the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles alone that have been classified as “soft-story,” this equates to quite a number of building owners who will have similar questions and be searching for answers.

To help provide an additional resource, Simpson Strong-Tie will be hosting a webinar for building owners in the Los Angeles area who have received a mandatory soft-story retrofit notice. Jeff Ellis and I will be covering “5 Steps to a Successful Retrofit” and helping to set a clear project path for building owners. The five steps that Simpson Strong-Tie will be recommending are:

  1. Understanding the Seismic Retrofit Mandate
  2. Partnering with Design Professionals
  3. Submitting Building Plans with the Right Retrofit Product Solutions
  4. Communicating with Your Building Tenants
  5. Completing Your Soft-Story Retrofit

We encourage you to invite any clients or potential clients to attend this informative webinar, which will lay the foundation for great communication between the two of you. As part of the webinar, we will be asking the building owners for their comments, questions and feedback so we can better understand what information they need to make informed decisions, and we will be sure to share these with the structural engineering community in a future post. By working together to support better communication and understanding among all stakeholders in retrofit projects, we will be well on our way to creating stronger and more resilient communities!

For additional information or articles of interest, there are several resources available:

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