San Francisco Apartment Association
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SF Apartment : July 2013


Seismically Sound

by Tom Hui

DBI’s acting director explains the practical steps that soft-story owners will have to take to be in compliance with new mandatory retrofit laws.

SFAA members have most likely read articles in this magazine and other publications about the city’s new mandatory retrofitting law for soft-story, wood-framed buildings, which were permitted for construction before 1978. As the city’s acting director of the Department of Building Inspection, chief building official and as a trained structural engineer with 35 years’ on-the-job experience, my focus is on what we engineers pay very careful attention to—the specific, practical steps property owners of these at-risk buildings need to take in order to protect their families, their tenants and their properties.

San Francisco building code contains the strictest requirements for seismic safety of any city in the United States, and is among the strictest in the world. But the new mandatory soft-story retrofitting ordinance that the mayor signed into law on April 18, 2013, the 107th anniversary of the 1906 Great Earthquake, gives us an important and valuable new tool to minimize the devastation that will be caused by the next major earthquake.

Step one in the Mandatory Retrofitting Implementation Program—which will be managed by one of DBI’s most experienced engineers in Plan Review Services, Robert Chun—will begin in the next few months. That’s when DBI will begin to send out notifications to more than 6,000 property owners where records show an address may be a soft-story building built before 1978 and in need of complying with this new mandatory retrofitting law.

With this notification we will include a soft-story “screening” form. We want this form filled out by the property owner’s engineer, architect or design professional, as it will provide a practical way to remove the address from the mandatory retrofitting list if, in fact, the owner has already acted and strengthened this building to reduce seismic failures. The engineer, architect or design professional will sign the form and provide their official seal and/or license number—thereby certifying and providing DBI with an acceptable, accurate, professional review of this building’s seismic strengthened condition.

Many property owners may not be familiar with engineers, architects or design professionals, and may wonder what to do in order to satisfy this screening form. In San Francisco, we are fortunate to have many highly qualified, and experienced, professionals in these fields. While DBI may not recommend any one person or company, we can suggest that you contact the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and/or the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California. These are membership organizations, and will be able to provide you with answers to questions you may have in terms of engaging a professional to help you complete the mandatory retrofitting screening form.

Property owners receiving the notification and screening form will have one year from the date we mail the forms to return them to DBI with the professional verification required to remove an address from the notification database. Once DBI receives the screening form, with the engineer, architect or design professional’s signature/seal, we will remove that address from the mandatory retrofitting list.

Following this screening form response, we will begin the second step in DBI’s implementation program. Buildings that are not qualified to “opt out” of the mandatory retrofits, again based upon information provided by the owner’s engineer/design professional, will then be placed in one of four “Risk Tiers.” Those in the highest risk category, Tier One, will have to submit their retrofit plans to obtain a building permit within two years. Those in the lowest risk tier, Tier Four, will have a total of seven years to complete the retrofitting work.

The third step will involve DBI’s Management Information Services’ professionals—the computer wizards who manage our applied technologies to ensure that the department retains in its systems accurate data on work performed. These databases will provide the highest degree of public transparency by enabling anyone interested to look up an address on the DBI website to confirm that it is, in fact, in the mandatory retrofitting implementation program. DBI will create a separate permit for the retrofitting work, and have it available in its new Permit and Project Tracking System, to enable us to generate accurate and timely reports.

As required by the new mandatory retrofitting ordinance, DBI will provide both quarterly and annual reports to the mayor and to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on the numbers of buildings at each stage of the Risk Tier Compliance Timetable, as well as report DBI budget realities in administering and implementing the mandatory retrofitting program. These reports will be posted on and available to the mayor, members of the board, and accessible to any member of the media and public interested in ascertaining the numbers and locations of these mandatory retrofits.

DBI also will be drafting (with professional assistance from the Structural Engineers of Northern California) and posting on its web site,, a new Administrative Bulletin that will detail the procedures and implementation steps required for property owner compliance. Like our existing AB-094, published for our Voluntary Retrofitting Program, this will provide detailed technical guidelines to assist engineers and design professionals, and ensure that the seismic retrofitting work done on a building will meet building performance levels envisioned by the mandatory retrofitting program.

While no engineer can yet design—nor can any contractor build—an “earthquake-proof” building, extensive studies show that even a little retrofitting goes a long way in helping to prevent building collapse. For example, some of these recent studies showed that one in four buildings with no retrofitting work would be expected to collapse following a major earthquake. With minimal retrofitting, this collapse rate changes to one building in 30. There is also a substantial improvement in terms of preventing potential injuries to building occupants, as well as the ability to reoccupy the building due to maintenance of structural integrity and the ability to make necessary repairs to enable reoccupation of the building. The latter is a critical goal in the city’s efforts to increase “resilience,” given what could be a significant loss of housing following a major earthquake.

As Mayor Ed Lee pointed out when he signed the new mandatory retrofitting legislation for soft-story buildings, the city has made impressive progress since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake by retrofitting and seismically strengthening nearly 200 public buildings and facilities. With the 2010 Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response Bond, the city’s emergency water system, which will be essential in fighting fires resulting from the next earthquake, is also being upgraded, as are neighborhood fire stations. As this Mandatory Retrofitting Implementation Program goes “live” in coming months, DBI’s professionals will be working closely with property owners to ensure they act immediately and retrofit buildings we know are among the highest at risk following the next devastating earthquake. These practical steps will save lives, reduce injuries and help San Francisco recover quickly and effectively from the next major seismic disaster.

DBI Acting Director Tom Hui is a registered civil and structural engineer with numerous technical certifications. He is an active member of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Hui and his wife, Janet, have two daughters, a son and a granddaughter.