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Why Retrofit?

Although current soft-story ordinances do not require a mandatory retrofit of your building, you must retrofit your building to have it removed from the soft-story inventory list.  To encourage owners to complete voluntary retrofits, the City of Alameda will waive all plan review and inspection fees for soft-story retrofit projects if they are submitted within 18 months of notification. The probability of an earthquake occurring in the Bay Area within the next 30 years is, in some estimates, almost guaranteed. While completing an engineering analysis for your building is an important first step, only a retrofit can make your building safer.

Some soft-story ordinances require that the engineering report includes strengthening all walls of the weak floor, regardless of the number of or orientation of openings. Though this requirement is beneficial to building strength, it greatly increases retrofit costs, and has deterred building owners from completing much needed soft-story building retrofits especially in building with ground floor apartment units.

However, by retrofitting only the weak elevations of your building before the engineering report is due (within 18 months of notification), your structural engineer, while preparing the engineering report, can tell the City that your building is not a soft-story building and should not be included in the inventory of soft-story buildings, excluding it from the ordinance requirements. This retrofit method will help protect your building at a lower cost, and preclude you from “excessive” ordinance requirements.

Aside from these incentives, there are many reasons why you should retrofit your soft-story building now:

  • Preventative protection. Although the cost of a retrofit may seem daunting in today’s economy, spending the money now to protect your building will save you money in the long run. According to the City of San Francisco Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety (CAPSS), the direct cost of repair of a soft-story building after an earthquake is six times the cost of retrofitting. This figure does not incorporate business interruption costs, legal costs, and lost rental income of an uninhabitable building, further increasing the benefits of seismic strengthening.
  • Cheaper construction costs. Due to the general slowdown in construction industry, labor and material rates are significantly lower today than a few years ago. As the economy picks up, labor and material construction prices will increase. By completing your retrofit now, you can take advantage of the competitive construction industry, and reap the same structural benefits.
  • Competitive advantage. The soft-story ordinance requires that all existing and prospective tenants and buyers are notified that a building is a soft-story building, which can affect rental and resale values. By retrofitting your building now, your building will be removed from the City’s inventory, and you will be exempt from future retrofit ordinance requirements.
  • Mandatory retrofits are inevitable. Bay Area cities will eventually require mandatory seismic upgrades for soft-story buildings.  The risk of building collapse and loss of life is too great and the municipalities and elected officials are concerned about hundreds of red tagged buildings and thousands of homeless people on the streets of their cities. They are also worried that in case if anything happens, they’ll be held responsible. Although it may take several years to pass the required legislation, mandatory retrofit ordinances are inevitable. By retrofitting now, you will be ahead of the game, and protecting your property and tenants.

Deciding to retrofit is a difficult decision for a building owner to make. The costs of retrofitting are immediate and readily apparent, while most of the benefits of retrofitting are not evident until after an earthquake strikes. Overall, however, the benefits of retrofitting greatly outweigh the costs. To find out how much a retrofit of your building might cost, ask a structural engineer to provide you with an estimate.

In our next posts, we’ll talk about specific retrofit methods, and how much a typical retrofit might actually cost to complete.

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1 Comment

  1. You’re right. Retrofits will be mandated. I found getting referrals from people who have had them done will lead you to a good structural engineer,
    Thanks for the information

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