Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill

They say you never forget your first love. Well, I remember my first earthquake, too. My elementary school had earthquake and fire drills often, but the Livermore Earthquake in January, 1980 was the first time we had to drop and cover during an actual earthquake. The earthquake occurred along the Greenville fault and over 20 years later, I was the project engineer for an event center not far from this fault. I don’t think that earthquake that led me on the path to become a structural engineer. I was only seven and was more focused on basketball and Atari games than future fields of study.

My favorite part about the Livermore Earthquake was the 9-day sleepover we managed to negotiate with my parents. I have a big family, so we had a large, sturdy dinner table. My brother Neil and I convinced my parents it would be better if we slept under the table, in case there was an aftershock. And, of course, we should invite our friends, the Stevensons, to sleepover because they don’t have as large a dinner table to sleep under at their house. And it worked! In our defense, there were a lot of aftershocks and an additional earthquake a few days later.

Each year, an earthquake preparedness event known as the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill takes place around the globe. The event provides an opportunity for people in homes, schools, businesses and other organizations to practice what to do during earthquakes.

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 15. It’s the largest earthquake drill in the world. More than 39 million people around the world have already registered on the site.

We’re also providing resources on how to retrofit homes and buildings, and have information for engineers at strongtie.com/softstory and for homeowners at safestronghome.com/earthquake.

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, and next Wednesday, we’ll be performing a multi-story wall shake table test for a group of building officials at our lab. We are also working 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.

Soft Story Building with seismic damage.
Seismic damage to a soft-story building in San Francisco.

Our research is often in conjunction with academia. In 2009, we partnered with Colorado State University to help lead the world’s largest earthquake shake table test in Japan, demonstrating that mid-rise wood-frame buildings can be designed and built to withstand major earthquakes.

Earthquake articles like the one from The New Yorker also remind us how important it is to retrofit homes and buildings and to make sure homes, businesses, families and coworkers are prepared.

Like others in our industry, structural engineers play a role in increasing awareness about earthquake safety. We’d like to hear your thoughts about designing and retrofitting buildings to be earthquake resilient. Let us know in the comments below. And if your office hasn’t signed up for the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill, we encourage you to do so by visiting shakeout.org.

Remembering Loma Prieta

Steve Pryor
Structural engineer Steve Pryor in the Simpson Strong-Tie Tye Gilb lab.

Steve Pryor, S.E., has been with Simpson Strong-Tie for 17 years and currently serves as the International Director of Building Systems. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Pryor was a practicing structural engineer in California. While at Simpson Strong-Tie, he developed the Tyrell T. Gilb Research Laboratory, one of the world’s premier large-scale structural systems test facilities. The lab has the capability to simulate both wind and seismic effects on light-frame structures via both quasi static/cyclic and dynamic test machines that can apply vertical and lateral loading simultaneously. A recognized expert in the structural response, analysis and testing of light-frame buildings, Mr. Pryor participates on several state and national building code committees. He was the primary industry technical consultant for the highly successful NEESWood Capstone seismic testing in Miki, Japan, which tested a full-scale seven-story mixed-use steel/wood structure, the largest building ever tested on a shake table.

We all know that earthquakes physically shape the landscape here in California, but they shape careers as well.  Earthquakes I felt while growing up in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley got me thinking about engineering as a career while in high school. When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck on October 17, 1989, like many of you I was watching the World Series live on television and thus got to see the earthquake live as well. I was in my senior year of college at the time, studying Civil Engineering with a structural emphasis. This earthquake cemented the direction I would take in my career. I wanted to be a structural engineer, and I wanted to design buildings that would not fall down in earthquakes.

After Loma Prieta hit, I was relieved when I finally got through to my family and realized everyone was okay.  If an earthquake like that happened again today, I would get an alert on my cell phone and know within minutes exactly where it happened, how big it was, and how deep it was. I would also be able to look at the USGS ShakeMap online to get a feel of ground-level damage potential and locations. But in 1989, none of this information was available so over the course of the next few days along with the public, I learned about what had happened in the Bay Area.

After graduating in 1990, several great mentors guided me as I pursued the art of earthquake-resistant structural engineering. I began to realize that earthquakes are like a great predator of the built environment: occasionally they take down healthy buildings in their prime, but they particularly focus on the old and the weak amongst our building stock; buildings with known (and sometimes unknown) deficiencies that if improperly designed or left unretrofitted cause them to fall prey to the earthquake.   After several years of practicing structural engineering, and after obtaining my P.E. and S.E., it was with some irony that I came to work at Simpson Strong-Tie in 1997. I became part of a team of dedicated people working to provide structural solutions to new and existing buildings in an effort to keep them from falling prey to the next earthquake. I was now a Bay Area resident, living in the shadows of the same seismic hazards that had manifest themselves on October 17, 1989, and which had shaped my career choice.

While there were many different types of structural weakness on display as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake, soft- or weak-story wood-frame structures commanded much of the attention. These multi-story wood light-frame structures have an inherent weakness at the ground floor because the area open for parking also cuts down on the area available for shear walls, and thus the available lateral strength. Without the requisite lateral strength in these weak stories, many buildings suffered heavy damage and even collapse. And all of this from an earthquake that was centered about 56 miles south of San Francisco.  One can only imagine what would happen if a similar earthquake occurred much closer.

In response to this threat, the City of San Francisco has embarked on a groundbreaking mandatory retrofit ordinance that will hopefully allow many of the city’s residents who live in these structures to “shelter in place” after the next “big one.” What buildings are affected by this ordinance? Wood-frame buildings built or permitted prior to January 1, 1978 with two or more stories over a soft- or weak-story that contain five or more dwelling units.

There are many questions that automatically pop up in response to this. How well does my building have to perform in order to enable me to shelter in place? Could I possibly shelter in place with a yellow tag on my building, or does it have to be green tagged? There is debate on this issue. What constitutes the “big one” – is it the “expected” more frequent earthquake, or is it the extremely rare, very large earthquake? The engineering criteria of the retrofit ordinance points toward it being the “expected” earthquake. Can these retrofits be done (economically) and will they make a difference?  Absolutely. How can you say that? We’ve tested them.

Simpson Strong-Tie was a proud sponsor and contributor to an ambitious project known as NEES-Soft. Led by Dr. John W. van de Lindt of Colorado State University, the project culminated with shake table testing of a full-scale four-story weak-story building on the outdoor shake table at the University of California San Diego in the summer of 2013. Constructed to be like a real San Francisco weak-story structure, the building offered a fantastic platform to test various retrofit technologies. One of the retrofit technologies tested was the Simpson Strong-Tie Strong Frame® special moment frame. Designed according to one of the engineering approaches (FEMA P-807) permitted in the City of San Francisco’s retrofit ordinance, the Strong Frame special moment frame performed extremely well, and we were able to conclusively demonstrate the improved performance of the building. Check out this link to understand some of the unique features that make this frame especially well suited for seismic retrofits of wood-frame structures. And don’t forget that any retrofit frame or wall is only one part of the complete load path needed for a successful retrofit!

The Strong Frame special moment frame did not materialize overnight in response to the new retrofit ordinance. The work on it and the other lateral force resisting products we manufacture began years earlier. It turns out that there are a whole bunch of people at our company, professional engineer or not, who are constantly thinking about this and share the same desire that developed in me back in 1989: let’s make products that help buildings not fall down in earthquakes. How can we help you on your project?  Let us know – we’d love to hear from you.

Applying new FEMA P-807 Weak Story Tool to Soft-Story Retrofit

This week’s blog was written by Louay Shamroukh, P.E., S.E., who is a regional engineering manager working out of the Simpson Strong-Tie Stockton branch. Louay is a licensed Structural Engineer in the State of California. He started his career with Simpson Strong-Tie in 1999 as a R&D engineer responsible for testing, improving and developing products for the light frame construction industry and he holds several wood construction connector patents. Louay serves as the liaison between the engineering department, customers, sales and manufacturing. He supervises a department that is tasked with providing technical and application support for Simpson Strong-Tie products to sales, specifiers and building officials. He explores market opportunities for developing new products through interaction with customers in the field and at industry events. Here is Louay’s post.

We have written about San Francisco’s Soft-Story Retrofit Ordinance and Soft-Story Retrofits before on the blog. I wanted to discuss in more detail the issues with soft story buildings and FEMA’s new tool for addressing them. Under the San Francisco Ordinance, wood-framed residential structures that have two or more stories over a “soft” or “weak” story require seismic retrofit. So far, more than 6,000 property owners have been notified about complying with the mandate.

Multi-unit wood-frame buildings with more than 80% open area on one first story wall or more than 50% on two adjacent walls are considered weak story buildings. During the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, 1989 Loma Prieta quake and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, this type of building often sustained major damage or completely collapsed. One cause for this structural weakness is the mixed use of the buildings, which dictates an open space and less partition walls on the first story than the upper stories.

Soft Story building
Figure 1: Multi-unit wood-frame building with first weak story.
Soft story building after an earthquake
Figure 2: Near collapse of typical weak-story wood-frame building.

The lack of exterior walls or partition walls on the first story leads to a considerable difference in lateral strength, stiffness and stability between the first story and the upper stories. During an earthquake, this difference exposes the first story to a concentrated lateral deformation in lieu of distributing it over the height of the structure. In the presence of large openings in the exterior walls, the concentrated lateral deformation is superimposed with the building’s tendency to twist.

Rotation of first story of a corner building
Figure 3: Rotation of first story of a corner building with openings on two side walls.

Buildings built prior to 1978 were constructed of materials and finishes that are archaic, non-ductile, with low displacement capabilities and poor detailing that can lead to earthquake damage, and in some cases, to building collapse. Some of these materials are stucco, diagonal sheathing, plaster on wood lath and plaster on gypsum lath that possess a maximum inter-story drift ratio of 2% or less.

unit load drift curves
Figure 4: Unit load drift curves for sheathing material with low displacement capacity vs plywood panel siding.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed the FEMA P-807 guideline, “Seismic Evaluation and Retrofit of Multi-Unit Wood-Frame Buildings with Weak First Stories.” FEMA P-807 provides procedures for the analysis and seismic retrofit of weak first story buildings built with structurally archaic material.

FEMA P-807 Guideline
Figure 5: FEMA P-807 Guideline.

The guideline’s design philosophy is to provide a cost-effective seismic retrofit method limited to the first story without disrupting the occupancy of the upper stories. The guideline limits the retrofit to the first story by introducing sheathing materials or structural elements with high lateral displacement capacity. This is designed to improve seismic performance and reduce the risk of collapse without driving the earthquake forces into the upper stories and exposing them to the risk of damage or collapse.

nit load drift curves for sheathing material with high displacement capacity
Figure 6: Unit load drift curves for sheathing material with high displacement capacity used for retrofitting weak first story of a multi-unit wood frame building.
Unit load drift curves for Simpson Strong-Tie® Strong Frame® special moment frame with high displacement capacity
Figure 7: Unit load drift curves for Simpson Strong-Tie® Strong Frame® special moment frame with high displacement capacity used for retrofitting weak first story of a multi-unit wood frame building.

FEMA’s Weak Story Tool, an electronic tool developed for FEMA P-807, tabulates the walls in a building graphically. Each wall in the building has its inherent material capacity to provide resistance during an earthquake. The tool applies the rules of the provisions and performs the analytical calculation to evaluate the building before and after the retrofit. Performing the analysis manually and iteratively requires a considerable amount of time and calculation. On the other hand, the tool is a convenient mean that aids in the analysis and keeps checking the input as the assemblies, special moment frames and walls are added for seismic retrofit. A report summarizing the data and formulas is available once the retrofit meets the provisions of FEMA P-807.

Recently, the Simpson Strong-Tie® Strong Frame® special moment frame was added to the Weak Story Tool. The Strong Frame® special moment frame is a 100% field bolted connection frame that does not require field welding for the retrofit of an existing building. It has a unique replaceable patented Yield-Link™ structural fuse that provides the ductile lateral resistance with high lateral displacement capacity. In close quarters of an existing building, such as a parking garage or commercial space, the Strong Frame footprint is considerably smaller than other retrofit assemblies. It also eliminates the need for beam bracing normally required for special moment frames, which was discussed in a previous post.

Weak Story Tool with Strong Frame Special Moment Frame.

Figure 8: Weak Story Tool with Strong Frame Special Moment Frame.

To use the Simpson Strong-Tie lateral system solution in the Weak Story Tool, go to the Assemblies Tab, where you can select Strong Frame special moment frame as a retrofit assembly. The frame is specified in the Simpson Strong-Tie screen functionality after inputting the frame’s dimensions and the ultimate target force. After selecting the frame, the functionality provides the initial stiffness, yield strength, ultimate strength and drift at ultimate strength for the tri-linear backbone curve, which are seamlessly inputted into the Weak Story Tool.

New Assembly button to specify retrofit assemblies
Figure 9: New Assembly button to specify retrofit assemblies and Strong Frame special moment frame.
Strong Frame Special Moment Frame Functionality
Figure 10: Strong Frame Special Moment Frame Functionality.

The Weak Story Tool is a convenient and powerful tool that can save the specifier several hours of mundane work and resources. Please try out the Weak Story Tool with the addition of the Simpson Strong-Tie® Strong Frame® special moment frame and let us know what you think. We always appreciate the feedback!

FEMA’s Weak Story Tool can be downloaded here.

If you’re in the Bay Area, please join us for hands-on training on the use of the FEMA Weak Story Tool. Register here, bring your laptop, and join us in the Weak Story Tool workshop presented by Simpson Strong-Tie engineers on Wednesday, October 22 at Oakland City Hall, 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, California 94612.

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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