Soft Story Retrofit – FAQ

I received a notice from the City stating my building is a “soft story building”  What steps must I take to comply with the Soft Story Ordinance?

The notice indicates that the City believes your building is subject to the Soft Story Ordinance.  In general, most owners will have to take the following actions:

  1. Develop retrofit design:  Retain a civil/structural engineer to develop a seismic retrofit design for your building.  In general, a seismic retrofit will often entail installation of structural steel framing in strategic locations at the ground level or the installation of properly fastened plywood to the wall studs at strategic locations on the ground level.  In some cases, this work may also require the removal and re-installation of interior wall finish at strategic locations if present.  Some foundation work may also be required.  The retrofit is intended to diminish the degree of damage your building will suffer following a major earthquake, and to mitigate the risk that the building will become uninhabitable.  It is important to recognize that the amount of seismic strengthening required by the ordinance specified is calibrated ton a level to simply reduce the risk of damage during a large seismic event.  It does not a guarantee your building will survive earthquake damage free, nor is it a guarantee your building will not collapse. The engineer’s retrofit design is documented on drawings and in calculations the engineer prepares. As an owner, you can always ask your engineer to explore strengthening options which will provide an increased level of protection for your building.
  2. Obtain original drawings and perform investigation:  In consultation with your engineer, inquire at the City’s Building Department whether drawings or other documentation about your building are on file at the Building Department.  Depending on the availability of such documents, you may have to conduct a building investigation, in consultation with your engineer, to assess existing conditions.  Investigations usually entail removal of small areas of wall or ceiling finishes in strategic locations to reveal concealed structural conditions.  The investigation phase may be the appropriate time to ascertain whether hazardous materials are present in areas where seismic retrofit work will occur.  Hazardous materials in older vintage buildings often include lead based paint and asbestos laden insulation around pipes.  An industrial hygienist may need to be retained to obtain specimen samples and to analyze the specimens for the presence of hazardous materials.
  3. Retain Special Inspection firm: In consultation with your engineer, retain a firm that provides Special Inspection services.  Special Inspection is a quality assurance process the building code mandates for certain types of structural work. Special inspector should be retained right before starting of the construction work to be available to inspect certain elements and procedures during construction, such as epoxy into existing concrete, field welding, high strength grouting, etc.
  4. File building permit application: File the drawings and calculations with the LADBS along with a building permit application.  The soft story ordinance requires owners to file building permit applications on or before one of the four following dates:  May 2, 2016 for Tier I three stories and above; July 22, 2016 for Tier I two stories; October 17, 2016 for Tier II; January 20, 2017 for Tier III with 9-15 units; May 29, 2017 for Tier III 7-8 units, August 14, 2017 Tier III 4-6 units, and October 30, 2017 for Condos/Commercial Tier III.  The deadline date that applies to a particular building depends on the building’s “compliance tier,” which the ordinance defines.  A building’s compliance tier depends on its Occupant quantity and occupancy type.
  5. Address plan review comments: Retain the civil or structural engineer that prepared the drawings and calculations to review comments—referred to as “plan review comments–to the drawings and calculations that the LADBS plan checker prepares during their review.  LADBS plan checker is charged with enforcing the requirements of the Soft Story Ordinance.  Plan review comments list areas of the drawings and calculations that the LADBS believes do not conform to the ordinance’s requirements.  Resolution of the plan review comments with the plan checker will be necessary before LADBS will grant a building permit.  The construction phase cannot lawfully commence without a building permit.
  6. Solicit bids from general contractors: Consider retaining the civil or structural engineer that prepared the drawings and calculations to assist with soliciting bids from general contractors to construct the retrofit and to advise you on this process. This could help ensure the most qualified contractors are chosen and that their bid proposal reflects the design requirements.  This should also facilitate communication between the potential bidders and the design engineer.
  7. Retain a general contractor: From among the contractor bidding pool, select the contractor that best meets your qualification criteria.  Consider retaining your civil or structural engineer to advise you on this process.

See the flow chart below for a complete soft story retrofit process.

What does a civil or structural engineer do? How do I select a civil or structural engineer?

Civil or structural engineer renders services for the design of structures and buildings that require education, training and experience in engineering sciences and that require application of special knowledge of mathematics, physics and engineering sciences.  California law restricts the individuals entitled to practice engineering to those who are licensed by the State.

Civil or structural engineers are licensed professionals.  The process of retaining a structural engineer is the same as that employed when hiring an accountant, attorney, doctor or other similar such professional.  Evaluation of credentials and qualifications is a key consideration.  Selection of a professional solely on the basis of the lowest fee can heighten the risk of an unfavorable project outcome.  Fee based selection is appropriate when buying a commodity, but not when procuring professional services.  In soft story retrofit projects, engineering fees could amount to approximately 15% of a project’s total cost for design and construction, yet the engineering services are critical to determining the other 85% of the project’s cost.  Projects on which the engineer is retained on a low-bid basis tend to save owners a small amount on up-front design costs, but can result in significantly higher construction costs.

Request a written services proposal, and interview the candidates after the proposals have been reviewed.  Ensure the candidates are California licensed engineers in good standing.

Pursuant to State law, engineers are required under most circumstances to furnish written agreements to clients before providing engineering services.  The agreement should as a minimum describe the proposed services, the compensation basis, the engineer’s address and license number, the terms and conditions concerning additional services, and the procedure by which either party can terminate the agreement.

I have received proposals from multiple engineers. Why do the services scopes and fees vary?

In preparing fee proposals, engineers formulate the scope of services they anticipate will be required to complete a project.   Sources for disparity in scopes or fees could include differing understandings of the project’s objectives, differing opinions on the means by which project objectives can be attained, or differing understandings in responsibilities assigned.  For example, one candidate may include in her/his scope of services response to plan review comments from LADBS, while another candidate may exclude such from his/her basic services but intends to provide such as an additional service on an as-needed basis.  During the selection process, inquiring about these disparities while interviewing candidate engineers can be an effective means of ascertaining the basis for scope of services or fee variations among candidates.

My engineer states there are four methodologies that can be applied demonstrate conformance to the Soft Story Ordinance. Why are there multiple approaches?

The Soft Story Ordinance permits the engineer to choose from among four different engineering approaches to demonstrate compliance with the ordinance.  The intent of all four procedures is to provide a soft story retrofit design that mitigates the building’s risk to damage and collapse in a strong earthquake, and to thereby diminish the amount of uninhabitable housing following an earthquake disaster.  Evaluating the unique circumstances associated with each project will be informative in determining which procedure to apply.  Consider authorizing the engineer at the outset of the design phase to study how the four procedures apply to the project and to determine which procedure best suits the project’s objectives. If this option is desired, this is likely to entail a greater proposal fee from the engineer, but there is also a good potential for decreased construction costs due to the need for decreased structural elements or those which are better suited to strengthen your building.

The engineer’s proposal includes design phase visits to the building to review its condition. Is this necessary?

The process of designing a soft story retrofit begins with defining the existing structural system so that an accurate assessment of its anticipated seismic performance can be made.  Where strengthening is required, it is important for the engineer to understand, to the best of their ability based upon the site visit(s), visible project constraints and other existing conditions that may influence the selection, proportion, or placement of the required supplemental structural elements.

After the engineer establishes the structural solution, s/he assesses how the proposed structural components will integrate into the building.  In the absence of reliable drawings that depict the locations of a building’s existing features, the engineer must visit the site to review such features.  The presence of garage door openings, air ducts, electrical conduit, water pipes, sewage pipes, fire sprinklers, etc. can impact where structural components can be placed.  In instances where an existing feature obstructs where a new structural component can be located, the engineer and the owner must evaluate the costs and benefits of redesigning the structural solution or relocating the existing feature.  It is considered good practice, to the extent practicable, to identify these conflicts during the design phase rather than during the construction phase.  Relying on the contractor to resolve such conflicts during the construction phase tends to precipitate schedule delays and cost overruns.

Building features that can obstruct placement of new structural components are often concealed behind wall finishes, ceiling finishes, or are buried underground.  It is good practice to undertake an exploratory demolition exercise during the design phase to reveal the locations of potentially obstructive features.  Exploratory demolition entails removal of portions of the existing finishes such as wall or ceiling finishes or potentially excavating the earth in some strategic locations to determine the depth of foundation systems or location of site utilities.  While exploratory demolition may pose an inconvenience and a small initial expense, it is an effective means to hedge against encountering unforeseen conditions during the construction phase.  Encountering unforeseen conditions during the construction phase are common sources of schedule delays and cost overruns.

A candidate engineer discussed the idea of designing a retrofit that provides an enhanced level of performance beyond the Soft Story Ordinance. What does that mean?

The intent of the Soft Story Ordinance is to create a retrofit that mitigates a soft story buildings’ risk to damage and collapse due to strong earthquake ground shaking.  Compliance to the ordinance’s minimum requirements is not a guarantee that a building will not suffer significant damage following an earthquake.  A soft story building that suffers damage to the degree it is barely habitable during disaster recovery and does not collapse, but must be demolished following disaster recovery is considered to have performed consistently with the intent of the ordinance.  The ordinance contemplates attaining a threshold level of seismic safety that seeks to balance risk mitigation improvement and cost.

Some owners’ risk tolerance may lead them to seek a retrofit design that yields a greater margin of safety against damage or collapse risk.  Asset value protection such that the building can be indefinitely habitable may be their seismic performance goal.  In some projects the incremental design fee cost and construction cost could be offset by the incremental value the owner realizes in the form of enhanced safety and diminished damage potential.

What does a contractor do? How do I select a contractor?

A contractor is a licensed firm or individual responsible for constructing the work scope defined on the drawings the engineer prepares.  The contractor’s responsibilities ordinarily include barricading the site to protect occupants and passersby, hiring specialty subcontractors, such as concrete contractors, steel fabricators, steel erectors, carpenters, etc., coordinating the activities of the subcontractors, and conversing with LADBS inspectors and the owner’s Special Inspectors to ensure work is progressing in compliance with approved drawings.  In short, the contractor is usually the party in control of and responsible for conditions at the construction site during the construction phase.

California law requires contractors to be licensed, bonded, and insured with workers’ compensation.  Familiarity with mechanics lien law is a worthwhile undertaking to understand liability exposure owners face in construction projects.

San Francisco building stock includes many older vintage buildings that contain hazardous materials, such as asbestos insulation around pipes or lead based paint on walls and ceilings.  Determining the presence of hazardous materials in the area of work is an important consideration in defining the project’s overall work scope.  Ideally the presence of hazardous materials can be determined before the contractor solicitation process occurs.  Laws at various governmental levels regulate the handling and disposal of hazardous materials.  Contractors ought to know whether they will be responsible for hazardous materials work when preparing their bids.  Many contractors that are licensed and experienced with soft story retrofit type work will not undertake hazardous materials abatement work as they lack the necessary licenses or their insurance policies will not cover such work.  Owners may have to retain a separate contractor specializing in hazardous materials abatement to remove the hazardous materials before the soft story retrofit contractor can begin work. With Private Builders Inc. owners will have peace of mind as we have list of highly qualified professionals that will be subcontracted to handle and dispose the hazardous materials.

What is a Special Inspector?

The building code requires certain types of work to be inspected by a Special Inspector as a quality assurance measure.  The Special Inspector must be retained by the owner. Special Inspection Items should be listed on the building plans as well as the ‘statement of special inspection’.   The building code prohibits the contractor from hiring Special Inspectors.

How much time should I expect the retrofit to take?

Construction duration varies depending on many factors, including building size, retrofit work scope, workers’ accessibility to the work areas, project phasing constraints (e.g. can the contractor complete the work in one phase, or does s/he complete one portion of the work, demobilize, remobilize and complete the balance of the work to accommodate tenants’ relocation), and inclement weather. Soft story retrofit project durations can generally be expected to last from several weeks to several months. Encountering unforeseen conditions during the construction phase, such as buried utilities obstructing new foundation, or pipes or electrical conduit concealed behind wall or ceiling finishes obstructing installation of new structural components can be aggravating circumstances which pose schedule delays.

What will happen to a retrofitted building after a major earthquake?

The intent of the Soft Story Ordinance is to mitigate soft story buildings’ risk to damage and collapse due to strong earthquake ground shaking, and to thereby diminish the amount of uninhabitable housing following an earthquake disaster. There is no guarantee a building retrofitted to comply with the ordinance’s minimum requirements will not suffer damage or collapse following an earthquake.



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