Friday, May 2, 2014


As all structural engineers know, one of the most dangerous and unsafe building types in California is the "Soft story" structures. As you know, soft story buildings are structures in which the ground level is parking with two or three floors of apartments above. Those who know me know this is a pet issue with me.

The buildings are, by design, "top heavy" and in the event of an adverse, strong ground motion the supporting weak, mostly wooden columns snap. The floors collapse on top of each other causing death and serious injuries for the people living in these types of units. We know this from the Northridge earthquake, where many of these buildings collapsed -- most notably the "Northridge Meadows" apartment complex where 16 people died in one building alone.

For years, at Building & Safety Departments in a variety of cities, I've championed passing an ordinance for a mandatory upgrade of these very unsafe and dangerous buildings to protect the public. It is too political, I was told, council members fear the backlash of apartment building owners, etc. There was only one city after the 1994 earthquake that passed a mandatory retrofitting program; Santa Monica in 1995. Now, another "progressive" city, San Francisco, has passed an ordinance for the same type of upgrade. And the vote was 11 to 0!

Kudos to San Francisco!

For the most part, retrofitting means additional bracing elements at the street level to make the buildings more rigid and able to withstand horizontal (earthquake) forces. It's not as expensive as many landlords think, and it will definitely save lives in an earthquake zone like Southern California. You know, here, the question is not if an earthquake will come, but when.

There are approximately 35-40,000 soft story buildings in the city of Los Angeles alone, not to mention all the surrounding areas. This is protection the public needs.

Our office is designing an increasing number of soft story retrofit projects, thanks to a federal program. Freddy Mac, or Fanny May do not lend money for these type of buildings and for refinancing purposes, landlords increasingly are forced to upgrade their soft story buildings. Retrofitting also has a positive effect on insurance for these buildings. I would like to hear your comments and experiences on this issue.

Re-posted from our newsletter originally sent on 6/13/2013