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:

Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill 2016

The Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill is an annual opportunity for people in homes, schools and organizations to practice what to do during earthquakes and improve their preparedness. In a post I wrote last October about the Great ShakeOut, I reminisced about the first earthquake I had to stop, drop and cover for – the Livermore earthquake in January, 1980. This year got me thinking about how our evacuation drills work.

At Simpson Strong-Tie, we use the annual Great ShakeOut drill to practice our building evacuation procedures. Evacuation drills are simple in concept – alarms go off and you exit the building. We have volunteer safety wardens in different departments who confirm that everyone actually leaves their offices. There are always a few people who want to stay inside and finish up a blog post. Once the building is empty and we have all met up in the designated meeting area, we do a roll call and wait for the all-clear to get back to work.

Several years ago the alarms went off. While waiting for the drill to end, we were concerned to see fire fighters arrive and rush into the building. Realizing this was not a drill, there were some tense moments of waiting. The fire chief and our president eventually walked out of the building and our president was yelling for one of our engineers. Turns out the engineer (who shall remain nameless) was cooking a chicken for lunch. Yes, a whole chicken. The chicken didn’t make it – I’m not sure what the guilty engineer had for lunch afterwards. At least we received extra evacuation practice that year. We aren’t allowed to cook whole chickens in the kitchen anymore.

Simpson Strong-Tie is helping increase awareness about earthquake safety and encouraging our customers to participate in the Great ShakeOut, which takes place next Thursday on October 20. It’s the largest earthquake drill in the world. More than 43 million people around the world have already registered on the site.

On October 20, from noon to 2:00 p.m. (PST), earthquake preparedness experts from the Washington Emergency Management Division and FEMA will join scientists with the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network for a Reddit Ask Me Anything – an online Q&A. Our very own Emory Montague will be answering questions. The public is invited to ask questions here. (Just remember that this thread opens the day before the event and not sooner.)

Emory Montague from Simpson Strong-Tie

Emory, ready to answer some seismic-related questions.

We’re also providing resources on how to retrofit homes and buildings, and have information for engineers here and for homeowners here.

Earthquake risk is not just a California issue. According to the USGS, structures in 42 of 50 states are at risk for seismic damage. As many of you know, we have done a considerable amount of earthquake research, and are committed to helping our customers build safer, stronger homes and buildings. We continue to conduct extensive testing at our state-of-the-art Tye Gilb lab in Stockton, California. We have also worked with the City of San Francisco to offer education and retrofit solutions to address their mandatory soft-story building retrofit ordinance and have created a section on our website to give building owners and engineers information to help them meet the requirements of the ordinance.

Last year, Tim Kaucher, our Southwestern regional Engineering Manager, wrote about the City of Los Angeles’s Seismic Safety Plan in this post. Since that time, the City of Los Angeles has put that plan into action by adopting mandatory retrofit ordinances for both soft-story buildings and non-ductile concrete buildings. Fortunately, California has not had a damaging earthquake for some time now. As a structural engineer, I find it encouraging to see government policy makers resist complacency and enact laws to promote public safety.

Participating in the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill is a small thing we can all do to make ourselves more prepared for an earthquake. If your office hasn’t signed up for the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill, we encourage you to visit shakeout.org and do so now.

Seismic Safety Regulations and Solutions

I have a special place in my heart for old buildings. Every college design course I took was related to new design. Concrete, steel, or wood design, the design problem was invariably part of a new building. I thought structural engineers designed new buildings. When I showed up for my first day of work wearing dress pants, a button-down shirt and a tie, I was handed a flashlight, tape measure, a clipboard and a Thomas Guide map (no Google maps back then) and sent to do as-built drawings for a concrete tilt-up that we were retrofitting.

When I was designing buildings, I created a lot of as-built drawings. Figuring out how a building was put together, what the structural system was (or wasn’t!) and designing a lateral load path in these old, and often historic buildings, was immensely satisfying. Knowing that history, it should not be surprising I have done a number of blog posts related to seismic retrofits. Soft-Story Retrofits, San Francisco’s Soft-Story Retrofit Ordinance, Remembering Loma Prieta, Resilient Communities, FEMA P-807, and Home Seismic Retrofit (there are probably a couple I forgot).

This week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed new seismic safety regulations . The recommendations are to retrofit soft-story wood-framed buildings within five years and older concrete buildings within 30 years. While these are only recommendations, it is encouraging to see politicians supporting policies to promote resiliency and life safety.

In San Francisco, thousands of building owners are already required by law to seismically retrofit multi-unit (at least five) soft-story, wood-frame residential structures that have two or more stories over a “soft” or “weak” story. These buildings typically have parking or commercial space on the ground floor with two or more stories above. As a result, the first floor has far more open areas of the wall than it actually has sheathed areas, making it particularly vulnerable to collapse in an earthquake.

Soft story building damaged by an earthquake

Photo credit: J.K. Nakata and the U.S. Geological Survey

San Francisco’s ordinance affects buildings permitted for construction before Jan. 1, 1978. Mandatory seismic retrofit program notices requiring that buildings be screened were sent out in September, 2013, to more than 6,000 property owners. It is anticipated that approximately 4,000 of those buildings will be required to be retrofitted by 2020.

“When we look at the demographic of these buildings, they house approximately 110,000 San Franciscans. It’s paramount that we have housing for people after a disaster. We know we will see issues in all types of buildings, but this is an opportunity for us to be able to retrofit these buildings while keeping an estimated 1100,000 San Franciscans in their homes and, by the way of retrofit, allowing them to shelter in place after a disaster,” according to Patrick Otellini, San Francisco’s chief resilience officer and director of the city’s Earthquake Safety Implementation Program. “This exponentially kick starts the city’s recovery process.”

One solution to strengthen such buildings is the Simpson Strong-Tie® Strong Frame® special moment frame. Its patented Yield-Link™ structural fuses are designed to bear the brunt of lateral forces during an earthquake, isolating damage within the frame and keeping the structural integrity of the beams and columns intact.

Simpson Strong-Tie® Strong Frame® special moment frame

Simpson Strong-Tie® Strong Frame® special moment frame

“The structural fuses connect the beams to the columns. These fuses are designed to stretch and yield when the beam twists against the column, rather than the beam itself, and because of this the beams can be designed without bracing. This allows the Strong Frame to become a part of the wood building and perform in the way it’s supposed to,” said Steve Pryor, S.E., International Director of Building Systems at Simpson Strong-Tie. “It’s also the only commercially-available frame that bolts together and has the type of ductile capacity that can work inside of a wood-frame building.”

Installation of the Simpson Strong-Tie® Strong Frame® special moment frame

Installation of the Simpson Strong-Tie® Strong Frame® special moment frame

Another key advantage of the Simpson Strong-Tie special moment frame is no field welding is required, which eliminates the risk of fire in San Francisco’s older wood-framed buildings.

To learn more about San Francisco’s retrofit ordinance, watch a new video posted on strongtie.com/softstory. For more information about the Strong Frame special moment frame, visit strongtie.com/strongframe.

City of San Francisco Implements Soft-Story Retrofit Ordinance

The city of San Francisco is a unique construction environment that is 98% built-out with little new residential construction. Protecting the existing structures is particularly imperative to save the character of the city and maintain the population base by preventing a major migration out of the city after a large seismic event.

The Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety (CAPSS) was a San Francisco Department of Building Inspection 10-year-long study started in 1998 to study earthquake risks in San Francisco and develop suggestions for mitigating loss of life and property damage from future earthquakes. I once worked as a volunteer on a sidewalk survey to inventory soft-story buildings as part of CAPSS. The key recommendations of CAPSS evolved into the CAPSS Earthquake Safety Implementation Program (ESIP), which has 50 tasks that will be implemented over the next 30 years.

One of those tasks includes the Mandatory Soft-Story Retrofit Program, which Mayor Ed Lee signed into law on April 18, 2013 at the annual commemoration of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The law requires wood-framed buildings that:

  • Were built prior to 1978
  • Are three stories or more and,
  • Have five or more dwelling units

to be evaluated and brought into compliance. The city sent notices to building owners on September 15. It’s estimated that there are between 4,000 and 10,000 structures that fall under the program.

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Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Buildings: Seismic Retrofit

URM Buildings. Image credit: www.henryturley.com

URM Buildings. Image credit: www.henryturley.com

Unreinforced Masonry buildings in moderate to high seismic areas can be a disaster in waiting. These types of structures have little or no ductility capacity (reference the recent “Building Drift – Do You Check It?” blog post for a discussion on ductility) required for structures to prevent loss of life in a seismic event. Many of these buildings are in densely populated areas, have historical meaning, and can be costly to retrofit. Fortunately, there are tools available for engineers to assess and design the needed retrofits to mitigate the potential loss of life and increase the seismic resiliency of these buildings.

Image credit: International Code Council (ICC).

Image credit: International Code Council (ICC).

ASCE 31-03, Seismic Evaluation of Existing Buildings, and ASCE 41-06, Seismic Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings, are two reference standards that are referenced in the 2012 International Existing Building Code (IEBC). (It should be noted that both of these reference standards are currently being combined into one document – ASCE 41-13.) Although ASCE 31 and 41 provide assistance to engineers in determining minimum seismic retrofits for these brittle structures, it is recommended that design of the retrofits be performed by a qualified engineer with experience in working with these types of brittle structures.

Currently the 2012 IEBC has been adopted in 39 states in the U.S. and several other areas (see reference map below).

2012 IEBC Adoption Map. Image credit: International Code Council (ICC).

2012 IEBC Adoption Map. Image credit: International Code Council (ICC).

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Soft-Story Retrofits

In February 2007 I had the opportunity to volunteer for a Soft-Story Sidewalk Survey for the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection. The purpose of the survey was to inventory buildings in San Francisco that appeared superficially to have soft or weak first stories. The volunteers were given a list of addresses to review and we recorded if the building was more than three stories tall, had five or more dwellings, and estimated what percentage of the ground level had openings in the walls. No structural analysis going on, just counting stories, mailboxes, doors and windows.

San Francisco soft-story structure. Photo credit: USGS.

San Francisco soft-story structure failure. Photo credit: USGS.

A collapsed house in San Francisco from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Photo credit: Adam Teitelbaum, AFP, Getty Images.

A collapsed soft-story in San Francisco from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Photo credit: Adam Teitelbaum, AFP, Getty Images.

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“Sunny With A Chance Of Earthquake”

Credit: PDF cover page from USGS.gov publication.

With scientists predicting a 99% chance of a 6.7 magnitude earthquake striking Southern California within the next 30 years, California weather forecasters may want to remind residents that the location which gives lots of golden sunshine year round is also one of high seismic risk.

 Recent earthquakes in cities similar to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Memphis have served as a reminder of the damage and disruption a major earthquake can have on a community. Through lessons learned from past earthquakes and research performed by the construction industry, there are many tools available geared toward residential buildings to reduce damage and resist collapse.    

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