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Hi, my name is Alexander (Sasha) Itsekson.  I am a California-licensed Structural Engineer at RDH Building Science Inc. I specialize in structural engineering including seismic analysis and retrofits, specifically “soft-story buildings”. For more information about me or RDH, please visit our website at rdh.com

I have started this blog to address the lack of reader-friendly information for building owners, real estate professionals, and property managers regarding soft-story buildings in the Bay Area. If you are unfamiliar with the way blogs are structured, the latest posts are always at the top of the page.  However, I made this post “sticky” to stay on top as an introduction to the blog.

I would appreciate any feedback or comments on my postings. If you have any questions regarding this information, please call me at 510 788 8923 or email me at sitsekson@rdh.com.

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Oakland Mandatory Soft Story Ordinance

On January 22, 2019, the city of Oakland adopted the municipal ordinance (OMC) No. 13516, also known as the Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Program. As part of that program, the owners of buildings that appear on the List and Map of Potential Soft Story Buildings have been notified that their building may be subject to the program’s evaluation and retrofit requirements since the beginning in May 2019. The buildings that are on that list are separated into 3 compliance tiers, each with its own set of deadlines for exemption application, seismic evaluation, and permit drawings and construction completion.

Numerous owners have already reached out to RDH to verify if there are grounds for exempting the building from the program. If the building cannot be exempted, the following steps are required to be completed:

Step 1: Perform mandatory Evaluation and Schematic Retrofit Report and submit initial Affidavit of Compliance.

Oakland Municipal Code (OMC) Section 15.27.050.C calls for an evaluation and a schematic retrofit report, with criteria given in OMC Section 15.27.165. The purpose of the evaluation and schematic retrofit report is to provide the owner with information about seismic risks other than the vulnerable target story, especially risks that are expected to be relatively easy to mitigate while the target story is retrofitted. If deficiencies identified by this evaluation are proposed to be retrofitted, that work is considered non-mandatory. Upon completion and review of the report, the building owner needs to submit initial affidavit of compliance with the city, indicating that they have obtained, reviewed, and understood the report.

Step 2: Complete structural design calculations and drawings for the mandatory work.

Except where compliance by engineering evaluation or engineering analysis is demonstrated, design of the mandatory seismic retrofit of the target story or stories, as required by OMC Sections 15.27.050.D and 15.27.170, is required to comply with the engineering Criteria for Target Story Retrofit Using California Existing Building Code Chapter A4 or ASCE 41- Seismic Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings: Seismic Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings. A structural engineer is required to prepare and submit structural calculations and structural design drawings for the seismic retrofit meeting said criteria and submit them for obtaining the building permit.

Step 3: Perform retrofit work and obtain approval on final inspection; submit final affidavit of compliance.

RDH has significant experience investigating, evaluating, rehabilitating and seismically retrofitting multi-family wood-framed apartment buildings such as the ones included in this ordinance. Our field evaluation staff and project managers have carried out hundreds of structural and seismic condition evaluations. Alexander (Sasha) Itsekson is the Principal Structural Engineer in our Oakland’s office and has 30 years of relevant experience, including 15 years of seismically retrofitting soft story apartment buildings throughout the Bay Area.

Please let us know if we can assist in this complicated process.

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What a shock!

What a shock! Two significant earthquakes, collectively known as the Ridgecrest earthquakes—with magnitudes of 6.5 and 7.1 (Mw)—hit Southern California on July 4 and 5, 2019. The Ridgecrest earthquakes were the largest earthquakes to hit California since the destructive 1994 Northridge earthquake. Engineers expected significant building damage in the area surrounding Ridgecrest. But the evidence shows that the damage was fairly light, and businesses were back up and running within a few days. So where is the damage? Let’s discuss the mystery of the “missing” building damage from the Ridgecrest earthquakes.

Most of the building damage was limited to mobile homes falling from their foundations and from brick chimneys collapsing. Some homes caught fire because of broken gas lines. At this point, little information is known about potential structural damage suffered at the Naval Air Weapons Station, located near the epicenter of the Ridgecrest quakes, although it is known that personnel had to be evacuated.

Below is a summary of 3 key factors that contributed to the light damage resulting from these significant seismic events:

1. Low population in the vicinity of the earthquake epicenter.

The population of the two Mojave Desert towns near the epicenter of the earthquakes is relatively low: under 30,000 in Ridgecrest and 3,000 in Trona. Compare these numbers to the 7.75 million residents in the Bay Area, which was the epicenter of the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, or to the 1.75 million in the San Fernando Valley, the epicenter of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. It is clear that with the smaller number of buildings and lower population, the Ridgecrest earthquakes didn’t result in as much damage or as many casualties.

2. Relatively modern building stock.

The City of Ridgecrest grew near the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake during and after World War II. As a result, it doesn’t have many unreinforced masonry buildings (UMBs), which were popular around the state until the 1930s, that have not been retrofitted. Recent and significantly less powerful earthquakes in Napa and Paso Robles, cities with much older building stocks, have caused significant damage to UMBs. Furthermore, the Ridgecrest area lacks significant numbers of non-ductile concrete structures, large warehouse buildings with flexible diaphragms, and soft-story apartment buildings, all of which are known to be vulnerable to significant earthquake damage. Most of the city contains single-family homes built in the 1980s that are one or two stories high. As a result, most buildings in Ridgecrest are fairly well braced and secured to their foundations.

3. The geology and the location of the epicenter relative to the town.

The epicenter of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake was northeast of Ridgecrest, but it occurred on a fault oriented in such a way that it forced the worst shaking waves away from Ridgecrest and Trona (northwest and southeast, respectively, of the epicenter) and into sparsely populated areas of the Mojave Desert.

On the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale, which categorizes the intensity of shaking based on the effects reported by untrained observers, Ridgecrest endured “very strong” Level 7 shaking. This level of shaking is enough to break chimneys and damage badly designed structures, but it results in only slight to moderate damage that is negligible in well-designed buildings. Trona experienced “strong” Level 6 shaking with only slight damage. By comparison, the areas in the vicinity of the Northridge quake’s epicenter saw “severe” Level 8 shaking—an intensity that destroyed 200 apartment buildings. Even though the Northridge earthquake produced much less total seismic energy than the one near Ridgecrest on July 5, its location resulted in more intense shaking in close proximity to a highly populated area.

Although the shaking was less intense in Trona than in Ridgecrest, Trona’s location on soft sediments that eroded off a mountainside caused spreading of foundation-supporting soil, resulting in some cases of foundation damage.

If an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or 7.1 occurred on the Hayward fault, it would have devastating effects on a densely populated place like the Bay Area. In particular, soft-story apartment buildings that have not been retrofitted have historically performed poorly during seismic events and experienced significant damage and collapse. The lack of damage from the Ridgecrest earthquakes could give people in populous areas a false sense of security. Major metropolitan areas in the vicinity of major seismic faults are likely to experience a substantially larger number of significantly damaged buildings. Building owners who plan ahead are likely to end up saving money because the cost of earthquake retrofits is lower than the cost of repairs and the loss of income when a building is unoccupied due to seismic damage.

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Deadline Looming for Retrofit on SF Buildings Subject to “Soft-Story Law “

September 15th, 2017 is the deadline to pull permits for buildings requiring retrofit work in San Francisco under the 2013 Soft-Story Law.  As of April 9th, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that many owners of the “tier three building category– wood frame structures containing between five and 15 units” have yet to file for permits.  Apparently, The City has mailed monthly notices reminding owners of the deadline as well as reaching out to landlords with a city-wide publicity campaign.   Only 48% of the 3526 buildings in the City that fall into this mandatory compliance have applied for permits.  Note: after the permit is filed, the owner has up to two years to finish the work.

Owners need to be aware that they will be subject to fines and delays if they wait much longer to get started. It will become increasingly difficult to engage a structural engineer as their schedules fill up making the process a more expensive proposition for late comers.  After the deadline, owners who do not have a permit, will be called into the City for a hearing, get a sign courtesy of the City of SF stating “Earthquake Warning” tacked to their building, and that’s when the fines begin.  A lien could be placed on the property, and even worse, the  City Attorney could file a lawsuit against the owner.  This friendly reminder encourages our readers to get active, avoid the headache, and save the extra dollars that will you will have to pay if you wait much longer.  The investment now will save you from future headaches.  If we can help, please give us a call or email.  We have worked with the City of San Francisco on many retrofit projects.  Alexander Itsekson, Principal Engineer, Enginious Structures  510-272-9999 or sasha@enginious-structures.com.

If you’d like to read the San Francisco Chronicle article – here’s the link. http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/For-SF-landlords-deadline-looms-to-retrofit-11060397.php


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City of Berkeley offers retrofit grants for soft story buildings

City of Berkeley have obtained FEMA funding that can be applied towards the engineering fees of up to $5,000 and 30% of construction costs up to the total combined design and construction costs of $25,000.  The funds are available in the form of reimbursements.

In order to be eligible for the engineering costs reimbursement, the conditions need to be met:

1. Engineering design fees should have been incurred after September 22, 2015;

2. The construction of the retrofit should have not yet started prior to the application for the Design Grant.

The design grant reimbursements will be available after the building permit is obtained.

To receive a Construction Grant, applicants must apply before construction begins and must wait for notification of FEMA approval for funding before beginning construction on their retrofits. Once approved for funding, applicants must complete their retrofit construction within six months of FEMA approval to be guaranteed grant funding.

For additional information, see http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/retrofitgrants/


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California to Develop Earthquake Early Warning System

Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill expediting the research and development of a statewide earthquake early warning system that has potential to save lives.

The warning system is designed to detect the first shock waves from an earthquake, and alert people before the slower but devastating waves spread. Once the system is ready, Californians will be getting warnings through cellphones, radios and or other devices.

The state’s current prototype is called ShakeAlert. This system can also have control of traffic lights to slow down traffics. An early warning can save lives through allowing trains to slow down, stopping people from entering tunnel or crossing a bridge, slow down traffic, and children in school to find safe cover.

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There Are Still 60% Of Soft Story Buildings In San Francisco That Have Not Complied With SF Earthquake Safety Standard!

In an interview done by KPIX 5, the Director of the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection, Tom Hui, said that only 40 percent of soft story buildings in San Francisco are in compliance with seismic retrofit ordinance.  A map that shows status of soft story building in San Francisco can be found on San Francisco Department of Building Inspection website: http://sfdbi.org/soft-story-properties-list.


The San Francisco Department of Building inspection has sent out a second warning reminding Tier 1 and Tier 2 soft story building owners and residents in San Francisco to comply with the seismic safety ordinance. The purpose of this mandatory seismic retrofit program is to improve residents and public safety in the event of an earthquake. If you need professional engineering services, please do not hesitate to contact Enginious Structures by calling (510) 272-9999 for information.


For Tier 3 soft story buildings in San Francisco, the deadline for submittal of permit with engineering plans is on September 15, 2017. Act soon because finding an engineer can be difficult as the deadline approaches.


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Additional steps you can take to secure you home

Additional steps you can take to secure you home. 

Have you noticed a continuous stream of news about earthquakes from around the world lately?  I certainly have and it reminds me that we are overdue for one.  There are a number common sense things that don’t cost a lot of of money  that one can do to prepare for the time when we are subjected to another big tremor.  You can always start with evaluating the building or the house that you live in. But if this out of your budget or if your house is already retrofitted, see below.

These steps are paraphrasing and adding to another New Yorker’s article by Kathryn Shultz “How to Stay Safe When the Big One Comes” as it relates to SF Bay Area.  See the previous post that talks about bolting your home to  foundations.

Strap down your water heater. A water heater is basically a bomb in your basement: big heavy object, open flame, gas line. If it topples over during an earthquake, it can break that line and start a fire. Or it can smash the water line and cause a flood. Or it can do both. You can hire a contractor to secure your heater, or do so yourself with a water-heater-strap kit, available at any home-improvement store for around twenty dollars. (And while you’re down in your basement, make sure you know how to turn off your gas and water main. You’ll want to shut off both after the quake—not a good moment to be figuring out how to do so for the first time.).  You can also install an EQ gas line shut off valve that will off your gas line automatically in the event of a moderate or large earthquake. The cost of this valve is on the order of $250 and should be installed by a licensed plumber.

Hold your stuff down. Computers, , vases, houseplants, your TV and all your family’s chachkaswill become projectiles during the earthquake. Your job is to prevent that, and you can do so in a couple of hours and at essentially no cost. Attach bookshelves and tall furniture to the wall. Use metal brackets with wood screws and  wing nuts to attach it to the wall finish or studs.  Move heavy objects from higher shelves to lower ones. Don’t hang pictures, mirrors, shelves, or anything else sharp-edged or heavy above a bed. Install latches on your cabinets. Don’t store heavy bottles above waist level.  Attach you favorite vases and other knickknacks to the shelves with museum putty.

Make a plan with your family. No matter when it strikes—though especially if it does so during school and business hours—the earthquake will leave countless people separated from their loved ones. At the same time, it will cut or severely compromise telecommunications systems, making it difficult or impossible to track one another down via phone calls, e-mails, or texts. Ask a friend or relative outside the region to agree to serve as a contact person for your family; if it does become possible to send messages in some form, you’re more likely to get through to someone when their end of the communications systems is functional and the lines aren’t overloaded. Choose a meeting place for your family, remembering that many bridges will be down and many roads impassable. Find out if your city has designated earthquake-gathering areas, where food, water, and first aid will be available. If you have children, learn the earthquake plan at their schools, day-care centers, camps, and after-school activities. If you live across a bridge from where you work or where your children attend school, arrange in advance for a friend to pick them up or meet them at home if the earthquake occurs during school hours and you cannot get there yourself.  Part of the problem is obliviousness, or disbelief. “Most people think someone is handling this,” Chris Goldfinger, the seismologist featured in the original New Yorker article, said. “And that’s not true. No one is handling it.”

Get to know your neighbors. In most disasters, neighbors become the de-facto first responders, since they are already on the scene when calamity strikes. That will be especially true in the large earthquake, where widespread damage to the infrastructure will make travel difficult for heavy vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances.  Find out which of your neighbors has an elderly relative on a ventilator, which one has a generator, which one has a past as a paramedic. Knowing facts like these about each other can save lives: theirs, or yours. City of Oakland offers free CORE (Community of Oakland Respond to Emergencies) training. If you can gather 15-20 neighbors and volunteer your living room, they will even send somebody to train you at your home.  Many other cities in the Bay Area offer similar programs.

Keep an earthquake kit in a safe, accessible spot in your home. If you do all of the above as well as retrofit your home, you will most likely survive the earthquake. Which is exactly why you should plan for it: you’re still going to be around afterward, when life gets physically, emotionally, and logistically hairy. You can make things easier—on yourself, your family, your neighbors, and emergency responders—by assembling a decent earthquake kit and storing it in a safe, accessible place. The kit should include supplies to last you at least 3 to 7 days on your own.  Some things to include:

  • Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, driver’s licenses, wills)
  • Cash (A.T.M.s won’t work after the quake)
  • Prescription drugs (these expire, so, as with food, you’ll have to periodically replace them)
  • Flashlights
  • Extra batteries
  • Spare eyeglasses
  • A whistle (attach one to your key chain, too, in case you wind up trapped somewhere)
  • Basic first-aid supplies
  • Warm clothing
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Rain gear
  • Sleeping bags
  • A tent
  • If you have a gas BBQ, get a spare gas tank and keep it filled.
  • Never leave your car below half a tank empty.
  • Food and water. Three-day supply of each on hand (figure a gallon of water per person per day, for drinking as well as washing) is a must, but in the large earthquake event that won’t be nearly enough. The more realistic target is a week supply, but that’s a daunting amount for those with limited means or limited storage space. My own theory about earthquake preparedness is that the perfect is the enemy of the good: don’t choose to stock nothing because you can’t stock everything. Got money and space to spare? Great: fill a shelf with water and nonperishable foods. Throw in duct tape and a tool kit. Throw in a hand-cranked radio, a water purifier, iodine. Don’t have much money or space? Make a small kit with whatever you can fit and afford. Everything you have, you’ll use; everything you can do for yourself frees up emergency resources for those in even greater need. The food in your fridge can last for a few days in the summer heat, but you can get some additional supplies at your local REI.  Also EQ kits are sold online.  Google it.

Demand better seismic safety.  Many of the worst problems facing the region will require major public-works projects to fix them, and others will require private companies commit to solutions, but the general public can play an important role in bringing about that kind of change. In California, most of the hospitals, public schools and junior colleges are retrofitted and are in relatively good shape. However, most of the private schools, day care centers and some universities are not.  A lot of the older office buildings where the parents of the kids who will likely survive the earthquake in schools aren’t retrofitted.  If you work in one of those buildings, ask your employer or landlord if it is retrofitted and demand action or consider looking for another place to work.  If you live in the apartment building, ask your landlord if the building is on the list of so called Soft Story buildings.  Those are the buildings that have large garage or storefront openings or tuck under parking garages that were built before 1980’s building codes and are of wood construction.  According to the studies these building are the most likely to collapse in the earthquake creating hundreds of victims and thousands of displaced citizens.  If you live in one of those buildings, find out if there is a plan to retrofit it.  San Francisco and Berkeley have mandatory ordinances to fix these building up.  There are deadlines to submit retrofit designs for permit and to complete the construction.  The city of Oakland is in the process of adopting a similar ordinance.  If you live in these cities ask you landlord if they intend to comply.  If not, consider moving.  There are tens of thousands of this type of buildings around other California communities.  Talk to your local representatives and press them to act.

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A Residential Seismic Retrofits Grants May Soon Be Available for Eligible Oakland Property Owners!

The City of Oakland has requested a federal funding for two programs that provides grant for Oakland property owners that are interested in seismic retrofitting their property. If the City of Oakland receives the funds, property owners will be contacted to complete a full application.

The criteria to participate in the programs are as follow:

1. Homeowners – Must be a single family home or 2-4 unit property located in Oakland, and must be occupied by the homeowner. Rental Properties are not eligible unless the owner occupies at least one of the units.

2. Soft Story Apartments – Must be located in Oakland, with over 5 units, over 2 stories, built before 1991, and with a “soft story” beneath habitable living space.

Qualified owners can download and submit a questionnaire. If the City of Oakland receives grant funding for the program, applicants will be contacted and invited to submit a full application.

Homeowner Questionnaire: http://bit.ly/2cO1PgT

Soft Story Apartments Questionnaire: http://bit.ly/2dqHS1D

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ATTENTION: Owners of “Tier 2” Soft Story properties in San Francisco!

San Francisco “Tier 2” property owners, the September 15th deadline of the mandated seismic retrofit program is approaching! Owners of Tier 2 properties, with 3-stories and 15 or more residential units need to submit permit application by deadline. Failure to submit permits and plans to Department of Building Inspection will result in code enforcement action and monetary penalties.

This retrofit program will improve public and tenants safety, as well as reducing cost of earthquake damage for owners. If you need professional engineering services, please do not hesitate to contact Enginious Structures, Inc. for assistance. For more information visit our website at http://www.enginious-structures.com. Feel free to e-mail us or call our office at (510) 272-9999.

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Los Angeles Passed a Seismic Retrofit Ordinance!

The city of Los Angeles Passed Ordinance NO. 183893, a seismic retrofit Ordinance which will affect as much as 17,000 buildings in the city. The goal of this Ordinance is to improve tenant safety, lower likelihood of building collapse, and to reduce earthquake damage. This Ordinance will be costly and the city has decided that the cost will be split between the tenant and the owner in rents controlled buildings.

Within the next 2 years, affected buildings will receive an order from the city mandating compliance with the Ordinance’s requirement. Property owner must submit permitted documents to the city within one year. There are 2 types of documents property owners can submit:

1) Structural analysis report indicating compliance with the Ordinance’s seismic resistance requirements.

2) Engineered drawings & analysis showing upgrade of the building in compliance with the Ordinance.

If retrofit is needed, owner must obtain all necessary building permits for construction with 2 years. Constructions must also be completed within seven years.

This Ordinance also includes retrofit for older buildings built before 1977, which also performed poorly in past earthquakes. Similarly, owners must submit analysis report within 3 years. If retrofit is needed, owners have 10 years to submit a more detailed report and 25 years to complete all necessary constructions.

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