Friday, May 8, 2015


Do you remember the "Good Old Days...? Younger professionals may have no idea what I'm talking about. The design professional, for example the architect or engineer made his or her drawings on vellum, mostly with pencil and then came that awful stinky smelling process - because ammonia was used - the so called "Blue printing" when copies were made for plan check, construction or for the owner to keep. (At least the strong smell of ammonia kept the people in the office awake...) So far so good. After the plans were approved and went into construction, the architect or engineer tucked the drawings into a big flat filing cabinet. Offices were full of filing cabinets, because this was the only way to keep old drawings for a later addition, change order by the client, or for even a dreaded lawsuit to prove that the contractor did not follow the plans and that's why the building collapsed. (Just kidding...) Nobody has ever asked the design professional to release the original drawings on vellums; everybody knew that traditionally it was the intellectual property of the design professional.

Fast forward into the digital age. Plans are emailed back and forth in cyber space between the design professionals, because they need each other’s drawings to use for their work, i.e. backgrounds for structural, mechanical or electrical engineering. No problem. Here comes the dilemma. Increasingly, agreements are requiring the design professionals to assign their ownership rights of their project design to the project owner, with other words requiring to give the owners the plan's drawing files. Owners consider the design documents to be their property, because they are paying the design professional to produce the documents.

It is a business decision of the design professional whether to transfer the ownership (in this case the DWG files) or not. By transferring the DWG files to the owner, the design professional may lose lucrative future work, because the owner can hire another design professional, who will, or who at least can use these documents for his work, thus undercutting regular design fees. Case in point is that we receive at least one request a month by different cities' Building and Safety Departments to give permission to release our old plans to new owners, who want to use our drawings for their newly bought house remodel. Building and Safeties of course do know that the old drawings are the design professionals intellectual properties and don't want to get into any legal action. The reason is of course that with our existing old drawings the owners don't have to pay their chosen architect or engineer good money to draw up new plans. Of course the design professionals can and should negotiate in good faith with the owners for the release of their drawings for an appropriate compensation. This compensation can be a one time "user fee" or the opportunity to do the proposed new work.

It is unfortunately a totally different ballgame with these "digital age" drawings. They can be easily obtained thru different channels, or being forced into releasing them, not to lose the job. As I mentioned before, the transfer of work product ownership may be a common occurrence in today's construction industry but its implications can be significant. Legal counsel should be consulted to ensure your risk exposure is mitigated to the greatest extent possible, while protecting your valuable intellectual property rights.

I'm interested to know how other design professionals handle these recently arising legal issues. Please let me know so I can learn, help and educate others.


Nobody can deny that new technologies are the future. No, actually more like the present. It is really hard to stop the fast changing world, where new things, mostly in the digital world are changing our lives and unknowingly other things as well. What I'm getting at: the internet is changing everything.

Everybody is familiar with sites like "Airbnb", VRBO, Roomorama, 9Flats, Wimdu, etc. You go to another city, almost anywhere in the world and check into... a, in an Airbnb! Or similar sites. The advantages are obvious. They are cheaper than hotels, motels, and they are available! Usually the selection is great from renting a mattress to a whole island. For those very few who are not familiar with the concept, homeowners do rent out individual rooms or the entire flat, condo or house to visitors. They do that for obvious reasons: money. Just like Uber the ride sharing transportation software, this service is not regulated, or not regulated yet, so there is a little bit of "you do whatever you want to do out there" So far so good, but are there any other implications far more reaching then just to make a few bucks? I think there is. I can speak only of the Southern California situation, but this is what's happening. Obviously this service is taking away guests from established and regulated hotels and motels. It also takes away monies from city coffers, because there is no room tax to be paid, and that is a lot. Don't you think cities are not aware of this? They are. I addition, it takes away available rental units of the rental market. Why? There is a trend, that people renting apartments not for their own use, but to rent it out short term through Airbnb and others. Of course, this leaves less available units for rent in the conventional long term rental market. No wonder there is a shortage in apartments for rent. Obviously landlords welcome the situation (supply and demand) because they can charge more rent, and developers scrambling to build more and more apartments. The City of Los Angeles is on the way to entitle more units to be built than ever before. You can see whole city blocks of multi-unit projects springing up everywhere in the city. Design professionals like us are also benefiting from the situation. We design more multi-unit buildings, then ever before. Am I complaining? Not at all, but I have a few comments, as I see the following scenario emerging.

Many of you who were in the business in the 80's will remember a similar building boom in apartment construction. You will also remember what happened after the market was overbuilt, saturated with apartments. It came the age of the "Condo Conversions". Hundreds and hundreds of apartment buildings were converted to condominiums, until there were soooo many condominiums for sale that it was almost impossible to sell or get rid of a condo. And that reminds me of Steve Sax...

Steve Sax? Who is Steve Sax?

Steve Sax was a very talented second baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 80's. He was hitting great as a leadoff man, he was running like a deer, but he had a little (???) problem defensively with the glove. He made errors after errors, seemingly having problems to take the ball out of his glove after catching it and cost numerous games for the Dodgers. In short, he could not get rid of the ball after catching it... Just like the condos, nobody could get rid of them...

And that reminds me another Steve Sax story. At that time Michael Jackson was in his prime. Do you remember the "Thriller", "Billy Jean" and many others...and the single white glove? Nobody could figure out what was the single glove for. And then came the famous trivia question.

What do Steve Sax and Michael Jackson have in common? And the answer: both wear gloves for no apparent reason...


Do you remember the opinion splitting article I wrote on "Earthquakes and Fracking" or "What the frack?". In that piece I humbly had the opinion, that although many environmentalists use fracking as an evil method, that creates earthquakes, therefore it should be banned, the truth is that earthquakes happen so deep underground, that fracking has nothing to do with it. Particularly I used the La Cienega oil field as an example since I live so close to it in Culver City. Long and behold, there were a couple of earthquakes, albeit relatively small, on April 12 exactly under this oil field.

Did I put my foot in the mouth? Should I just shut up and be quiet since I don't know anything about earthquakes? Maybe, but I've read a small article in the Los Angeles Times after this earthquake with a title: "QUAKE NOT LINKED TO OIL DRILLING"

In this article the author Veronica Rocha writes, that the magnitude 3.5 earthquake that rattled parts of Southern California on Sunday night occurred right under this La Cienega oil field, where extensive fracking is going on, near the Newport - Inglewood Fault and I quote: "Lucy Jones, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist, wrote on Twitter that oil drilling, or fracking, was unlikely to be responsible for the quake because it occurred at a depth `way below the oil fields` under the epicenter. Instead, the scientist said the shaking appeared to be caused by movement in the Newport - Inglewood Faults"

Do I feel vindicated by this article? Not at all. Earthquakes are very complex natural phenomenon and only continuous research and studying of past events can lead to understand them and maybe someday to predict them.


Did you know that high-rise building floor beams are deliberately designed weaker, so that in case of a failure of the column-beam connection, the beam will fail and not the column? This is important because a structure can function with a failed floor beam, but cannot with a failed vertical column.

Did you know that the so called, and dangerous, soft story buildings were designed properly prior to 1972? That is because the building code prior to 1972 allowed a so called "torsional analysis" design method, but, later it was realized that the horizontal torsions of flexible diaphragms created an excessive horizontal deflection and buildings were not designed for that. That's when they changed the code.

Did you know that structural engineers are born scapegoats? That’s because, if they design a building economically, to cost the least amount of money, then the building is not structurally safe enough and therefore not good. But if they design a building to be structurally very safe and sturdy, then the cost of construction will be too expensive, and therefore not good. That's what we call a "no win" or "catch 22" situation.

Did you know you can tell the difference between a very dangerous, un-reinforced brick building from a much safer, more modern reinforced brick building without breaking the walls down? From the outside, brick buildings look very much alike. But when you go closer and you see that the running bond bricks are interrupted every 6 to 7 rows with a layer of brick, laid across the wall, therefore showing only the short side of the brick, you'll know this is an un-reinforced brick building. Why? Brick walls are built as double walls to allow for the necessary thickness, an interior and an exterior wall next to each other separated with mortar only. The higher you go it is more likely that these walls will separate. To avoid this, masons reversed every 6-7th row of brick across the wall to keep the two walls together. Interesting, isn't it?

Did you know that The Richter magnitude scale (also Richter scale) assigns a magnitude number to quantify the energy released by an earthquake? The Richter scale is a base-10 logarithmic scale; therefore, an earthquake that registers 5.0 on the Richter scale has shaking amplitude 10 times that of an earthquake that registered 4.0. (For those not to familiar with mathematics base-10 log 1,000 = 3 base-10 log 10,000 = 4 and base-10 log 100,000 = 5.) You can see that 5 on the Richter scale is 10x more than 4 on the Richter scale.

Now you know.


Not too many people are aware that our kids going to private schools are not as well protected as kids attending public schools. What do I mean?

When the great Long Beach earthquake hit in 1933, it brought 70 school buildings tumbling down. Officials said thousands could have been killed if schools had been in session when the earthquake hit at 5:54 PM. This earthquake prompted a strict state law that set standards and inspections for public schools. But the law, known as the Field Act, did not cover private schools.

Today, public schools in California have a very strict way to assure children's safety. The permitting of these buildings requires the plans go thru the state architects office to be reviewed by a licensed structural engineer. Generally speaking, this process ensures that these buildings are super safe in case of an earthquake. Private schools, on the other hand, don't have to go thru this permitting process. Any Department of Building and Safety can issue permits for private schools. In addition, existing private schools in older buildings don't have any requirements to upgrade these structures to current seismic, or earthquake, codes.

Don't our children in private schools deserve the same secure and safe environments as children in public schools?

I think cities should act to require upgraded earthquake safety for all the children in California.

What do you think?


I always loved Lucy. Actually I bought a collection of all the episodes of the "I love Lucy" shows. It always gives me pleasure to watch the lovable but very silly Lucy getting into all kinds of trouble.

Fast forward about 5 decades and see that Lucy is running the show again!

Of course she is not the same Lucy, but at this time she is maybe the smartest and very influential Ph.D. Lucy Jones who's running the show at least for the city of Los Angeles. Of course I'm speaking of Lucy Jones, who is in the science advisory role to the mayor Eric Garcetti, on "loan" from the USGS (United States Geological Survey) to the city of Los Angeles. She is also known as the "Earthquake Lady" after her numerous appearances on television as a commentator to the latest La Brea earthquake. For the past year or so she has been helping the City of Los Angeles to put together a program to make vulnerable buildings in the city safer. I've met Lucy last year at a west side symposium and I was very impressed by her agility, knowledge about earthquakes and determination to make the city of Los Angeles a safer place to live.

In a nutshell, based on the recommendations by Lucy Jones, the mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed:

Mandatory retrofitting of older concrete buildings, mostly serving as office buildings and "soft story" wooden multi story buildings, generally multi-unit apartments. This is earth shattering proposal, considering that in Los Angeles up 'till now only the so called Divisions 88 and 91 required mandatory retrofitting of unreinforced brick buildings and inefficiently built tilt-up and similar building's wall to roof connections, respectively. Almost 100% of the URM (Un-Reinforced Masonry building) were retrofitted or demolished as a result of the Division 88 The benefits of this kind of retrofit is obvious if considered, that no people died in these types of retrofitted buildings from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

As with anything new, there are opponents of this. Landlords are already concerned, that this type of retrofitting will cost thousands of dollars. Yes, it is true, but one of the major problem with this issue is, that landlords mostly do not live or work in these type of dangerous buildings. They don't know or don't want to know the responsibilities they have. Probably, if the landlord would have to live on top of a "soft story" structure and think about the building collapsing in even a moderate earthquake, he or she would retrofit and make it more safe, earthquake proof the building right away. (Do you remember I wrote about the Hungarian structural engineer who was in a small dinghy under the bridge over the Danube, what he designed, during the test loading, showing the world that he is not just talking the talk, but walking the walk too?) And yes, the city of Los Angeles should have some kind of financial help, i.e. loan guaranties, tax credits or even a state wide bond measure to help the landlords as well. There are already positive vibes from council members to support this measure.

Garcetti also proposed some kind of rating system for these effected buildings. I still like the idea of placing mandatory placard on the front elevation of buildings indicating the seismic safety of the structure for everybody to see, before they decide they want to live or work in these buildings. San Francisco is way ahead of us in this, let's catch up. Nothing is going to make landlords deciding to do retrofitting faster, than loosing tenants who will look for safer places to live and work. When it hits your pocketbook, it'll hurt.

Anyway, "I love Lucy..." who is instrumental behind this very important development in our city.


Cities across California are struggling with how to convince property owners to retrofit buildings at risk of collapse during a major earthquake, the majority of them being "Soft story" buildings. In one of my previous newsletters (okay, maybe more than one) I mentioned that placing a placard on the front of the building, much like the way restaurants have letter grading, would force land lords to act in order not to lose tenants.

Like many other things, one of the most progressive cities in California, San Francisco, is using an unusual tactic: trying to publicly shame building owners into shoring up their structures to better withstand violent earthquakes. The city will slap large signs with red letters and the drawings of a destroyed building on thousands of apartment complexes that violate San Francisco's seismic safety laws and ordinances passed last year.

"We wanted something that caught people's attention, which I think this very well does." said Patrick Otellini, San Francisco's director of seismic safety. In other words, don't live or work in this building, it may collapse. "We saw that other programs had been wildly unsuccessful. We wanted a poster that drives change and lets people know what's going on."

No other California city has gone so far to inform the public about potentially dangerous buildings and pressure property owners to make fixes.

Hello Los Angeles and the surrounding hundreds of cities......!!!!!!

We have close to 30 to 40 thousand buildings under the "soft story" category. Where are our signs to warn people? I need your help to educate and inform the public and city officials. Please voice your support with city officials to act soon!


When you want to install roof solar panels or photovoltaic panels, you need a building permit. That sounds ok, right? After all, you add something to the building, and the cost is over $500.00, the threshold for which you need a permit. The Department of Building and Safety requires, in order to prepare plans, that you go to a structural engineer, make calculations, pay fees to the city (and to the structural engineer), and then you receive your permit.

The problem with this approach is that photovoltaic panels are extremely light. Average weight is about 3-5 lbs/sq. ft. Every roof is, and always has been, designed to have a live load of 16-20 lbs/sq.ft. for most residential buildings. When you install these panels you add the weight of this 3-5 lbs/sq.ft. On the other hand these areas will never receive any live load, nobody will walk on top of these solar panels, they would break. Therefore you actually decrease the total load - live load + dead load - for the roof. Why bother to make calculations for something which is less then what it was originally designed for? (The seismic considerations are negligible compared to the total weight of the building.)

Thank God, the City of Los Angeles recognized this and streamlined the process. Instead, you can now get a permit online, without waiting days and many times weeks, bypassing the Department of Building and Safety, as well as the costly structural engineer.

Kudos to the City recognizing this situation, cutting through the red tape and expense, making the installation of a roof solar photovoltaic system more economical and faster for home owners!


I've been writing my newsletters for quite a while and get responses all the time. In our last edition I wrote what I thought were a couple of interesting articles about some legal issues like landlords responsibility and a possible scenario for water problems after a major earthquake. To my surprise the responses, and there were many - which is not surprising given we send our newsletter to about 3,000 people - came in almost exclusively about the "What the Frack!" article. It seems to be a very politically sensitive issue given the nerve it hit with so many of my readers. Of course the responses were on both sides of the isle, so I'll share with you a few of the most interesting ones.

"Interesting piece on fracking. Perhaps we can become energy independent and stop buying oil from people who want to cut our heads off." -- Brian K.

"I enjoy your blog/newsletter very much. You have a great way with words, and you put forward some very thought provoking topics. Fracking Marvelous! I look forward to the next issue." -- Rob J.

"I think fracking should be outlawed until some carefully designed studies can find ways to do it in places where it won't contaminate the groundwater and it is least likely to cause earthquakes." --Mary B.

"Great write up! Thanks for the useful knowledge." -- Michael A.

"I agree Peter that earthquakes are not the issue with fracking but debunking one aspect of the debate doesn't mean that environmentalists are all wrong." -- Emilio V.

"The biggest issue that I see is where is the talk about desalination????????????? Are we waiting until "too late" like 20 towns that are trucking water in to drink? This state is so stupid it's amazing... Bullet train or drinking water? Hmmmmmm" -- Wayne S.

"Thank you for your article based in truth. I am so sick of the save the earth crowd that vilifies anything as being environmentally disastrous with nothing factual to back up the claims. Fracking in general occurs thousands of feet beneath water aquifers and has no effect on water quality because of the distance that separates them. Also in a world of increasing global uncertainty this technology gives America a great domestic supply of oil. Made in America oil supplies are booming as a result of this technology. A welcome creator of jobs. Just check out the job growth in North Dakota because of the Bakken Shale area. The save the earth crowd also believes that earthquakes are precipitated by this technology. Pure Baloney. Thanks for laying some truth out." -- Steven M.