Soft Story Retrofitting: What, Why and How?

Soft Story Retrofitting: What, Why and How?

What is Soft Story Retrofitting?

In a multi-story building, generally, each level supports the level above it. However, some buildings are designed with a level that offers significantly less support than the levels above or below it.

  • In Southern California, it is great to be able to park in the shade. In areas where land is at a premium, this often means a ground level that is mostly parking, with the floors supported only by columns rather than by solid walls.
  • In retail businesses, great window displays are a main attraction. But, if the ground level includes exterior walls with large display windows, those walls offer less structural support than solid walls.
  • Office buildings and hotels can also have soft stories. They too may have ground level open parking areas below the second story. In some multi-story buildings, the ground floor is twice the height, or more, of the other levels and this is also a source of weakness.

In buildings such as these, the less supportive level is referred to as a soft story.

You may remember playing with blocks as a child. If you used blocks of all the same size and carefully placed them one on top of the other, you could create a tall stack that would not fall down. However, if the bottom block, or one of the middle blocks was smaller than the others, your stack of blocks was not as stable.

A building with a soft story is similar. During significant seismic activity, the soft story is more flexible than the other stories. As a result, the soft story may collapse under the levels above it.

Seismic activity is unpredictable, but expected, in the Los Angeles area. The San Andreas fault runs from Cape Mendocino to the Mexican border, a mere 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Geographically, it is the sliding boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. These plates move gradually, but a sudden slip between the plates results in a measurable earthquake. In major earthquakes, such as the 1971 San Fernando earthquake or the 1994 Northridge earthquake, many soft-story buildings collapsed or suffered significant damage. Seismologists predict that the area is due for another major earthquake. The question is not whether an earthquake will occur, but when. It is only a matter of time.

To reduce the risk of earthquake damage to soft-story buildings, a professional retrofit is recommended and, in many areas, mandated by law. Soft story retrofitting involves reinforcing the vulnerable aspects of the building’s construction. Retrofitting options include:

  • Adding foundation plates
  • Adding shear walls
  • Adding walls, structural members and grade beams
  • Adding moment frames, steel columns and connections
  • Other options are available too, depending on the current configuration and your goals for the building.

These options vary in cost, construction time, disruption to existing tenants and overall effectiveness. No two buildings are the same, and the best solution for one building may be different than the solution for another building. However, you may want to see examples of other retrofits to get ideas. A licensed engineer can show you a portfolio of other projects. Then, the engineer or firm you are working with can guide you, ensuring that the options you select for your project will meet building code requirements as well as your goals for the appearance and functionality of your building.

Why should I have my soft story building retrofitted?

Obviously, you want to protect lives. A collapsing building is very dangerous and can cause serious injury or even death. The 1906 earthquake of San Francisco claimed over 700 lives. Even today, with more modern construction methods and standards, earthquakes can be deadly. The 1994 Northridge earthquake was the deadliest in recent history, with 61 fatalities. As a building owner, you are liable if you have been negligent in making sure your building meets the requirements of the building code in your area. Failing to meet current code ordinances could result in very costly lawsuits.

  • And, of course, you also want to protect your investment. Earthquake damage is costly to repair, may take time and may reduce the value of your building. Even though you probably have earthquake insurance, there may be a sizable deductible. Often there is little or no coverage for loss of income during the period while your building is being repaired or rebuilt.
  • Last, but not least, retrofitting is mandated by law in Los Angeles and many surrounding areas. In November of 2015, the Los Angeles soft-story retrofit program became law. The program identified 12,645 vulnerable soft story buildings. Building owners have been notified. If you are unsure of the status of your building you can look up the address here to see any outstanding notices. There is a timeline for compliance. If you are unsure of the ordinances in your area, check your city’s website or call the building codes enforcement department. Working with a contractor experience in your area can help too, as they will already be familiar with local requirements.

How do I select a contractor and get started with my soft story retrofitting project?

Step 1
Find a licensed structural engineer who works closely with a construction firm experienced in seismic retrofitting. The engineer will begin with a careful inspection of your building. Then, the engineer discusses the options with you, your budget and your goals for the building. Depending on the nature of the project an architect or designer may also be involved. A significant advantage of working with a single firm for engineering, design and construction is that you know all costs up front and the project is managed carefully, end-to-end.

Tip: Wondering about the cost? Retrofitting for smaller buildings averages between $25,000 and $70, 000. Larger buildings will be more. Legally, you can pass some of the cost to your tenants as increased rent. Be sure to check current laws.

Step 2
Your licensed structural engineer can prepare your plans and calculations for you. Submit your plans to the appropriate city officials. Your licensed engineer or construction firm can guide you through this process. This is a very important step that must not be overlooked.

  • Submitting a plan, within a certain time frame, is typically the first requirement of local retrofitting ordinances.
  • You will want to be sure your plans meet all legal requirements and are approved before proceeding with construction.
  • If you have been considering any cosmetic remolding, you may want to include this in your plan as well. Even though cosmetic remodeling is not necessary to meet the requirements for seismic retrofitting, it may be cost effective to have all construction done at the same time. Also, this avoids displacing tenants more than once and paying more for mobilization costs.

City officials will review the plan to ensure that the proposed modifications will bring your building up to code.

  • If your plan is not approved, you will receive specific guidance about what needs to be modified.
  • Your engineer can modify the plans and respond to any comments. Once the plans are approved, you are ready to proceed with the next steps.

In Los Angeles, property owners who received notices for retrofitting have certain deadlines to submit structural evaluations, proof of retrofitting or plans for approval. From the receipt of the order, you have 3.5 years to obtain your construction or demolition permit. You have 7 years to complete the project. Check with your city and follow order to comply notices for the most recent updates. Other municipalities may have similar requirements. However, even though the law allows you additional time to implement the plan once it is approved, you will want to proceed as quickly as possible, to avoid any potential damage to your building. Earthquakes are not predictable and may occur at any time.

Step 3
This is the planning and preparation stage. Again, it is recommended that you work with an experienced retrofitting construction firm. They can help you navigate the process, be sure that you know what to expect, and keep everything on track.

  • Obtain all necessary permits. Your construction firm can help with this.
  • Obtain a detailed quote. This quote will be more precise than any initial estimates, now that a plan has been approved. It should include all supplies, labor and other costs. The project manager from your construction firm can go over it with you, carefully. There should be no hidden costs or surprises.
  • If necessary, secure financing. If your building has an existing mortgage, be sure to contact the lender about any alterations to the building, even if you do not plan to secure financing for the retrofit through this lender.
  • Set a timeline for starting and implementing construction.
  • Review all leases and tenant agreements. You will need to notify tenants of your plans and how they will be impacted. Your contractor can help you with this process. Because of the extended time frame to complete construction, building owners often opt to do some or all renovation work between leases.

Step 4
This is the construction phase. The best approach is to allow your licensed contractor to carefully coordinate all materials procurement, sub-contractors and inspections. If you have gotten to this step without selecting a construction firm, keep in mind the following:

  • Working with an experienced full-service firm can provide you with dedicated project management and avoid costly delays and mistakes. Since construction may displace tenants, it is very important to ensure that the project is completed as quickly as possible.
  • An experienced, responsible construction firm should keep you updated throughout the project. As you visit the site from time to time, you may have questions and your project manager should be readily available to answer those for you. Be sure to enquire about project communication when you select your construction firm.
  • Be sure that your construction firm works only with licensed, bonded sub-contractors and carries appropriate insurance.

Step 5
Once construction is complete, there will be a final inspection. The day you do the final walk through of the project and the day you are notified by city officials that your building passes the final inspection are very exciting. You will be glad to have this major project completed and have a building that is more secure.

With the project finished, you still have a few more things to do though. Retrofitting is a matter of compliance, but you can also view it in terms of your overall business plan. Here are some ways you can make sure that soft story retrofitting is not just an expense, but a positive impact for your bottom line.

  • Contact your insurance provider. Be prepared to show them the soft story retrofitting plans and final approvals. Premiums for earthquake insurance should drop substantially once soft story retrofitting is complete. Ask that your current plan be re-evaluated, and consider other providers for the most competitive rates and plans.
  • Review all lease agreements and applicable laws. You may be allowed to pass on some or all of the cost of retrofitting as increased rent over a long term.
  • Review the terms of any loans that you have that are secured by the property. If you have a separate long term mortgage and a shorter term construction loan, you may be able to consolidate them. Or, with the building now at lower risk, you may be able to negotiate a more favorable interest rate.
  • Update any marketing to emphasize that your building meets current earthquake safety standards. In today’s competitive market, savvy consumers are looking for the best. Your investment in soft story retrofitting can influence tenants to choose your building over others.
  • Explore PR possibilities. Local television and newspapers are always looking for a good story. The story of your soft story retrofitting may be a great illustration of why compliance with seismic retrofitting laws is important and how retrofitting is implemented. A positive representation in the news can help you attract good tenants.

Do you still have questions? The experts at Gozen Construction are happy to chat with you!