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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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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