Everything you need to know about your Los Angeles soft-story retrofit

Many Californians remember the Northridge earthquake of 1994, which caused 57 deaths, injured 8,700, and displaced 22,000 people from their homes. During the quake, the soft-story Northridge Meadows Apartments complex collapsed when the weaker ground floor was completely crushed by the two floors above it, causing 16 deaths. 

If the next big earthquake were to hit Los Angeles or another populous SoCal area, as many as 1,800 people could die and 270,000 people could be displaced.

Soft-story buildings (or tuck-unders) like the Northridge Meadows Apartments are built with a first story that is weaker than the stories above it. The ground floor is exceedingly open, either for a garage (usually the case) or a spacious lobby with large windows. A more open floor plan provides less support for the floors above, which means the building is less resistant to any side-to-side shaking from earthquakes. When the first floor collapses, the more rigid upper floors tend to flatten everything beneath them, which is hazardous if you are in or around the building during an earthquake.

Earthquakes will happen and are currently impossible to predict. The 7.1 Ridgecrest earthquake on July 5th, 2019 and its associated foreshocks were a pressing reminder that earthquakes can happen anytime. If the next big earthquake were to hit Los Angeles or another populous SoCal area, as many as 1,800 people could die and 270,000 people could be displaced. In the chaos of such a large quake, soft-story buildings are much more susceptible to collapse.

Soft-story buildings haven’t been built since the 80’s, having been phased out in favor of larger multi-story apartments to save space, but many of them still exist today. In November of 2015, Los Angeles signed a mandatory soft-story retrofit program into law. The city identified the most vulnerable buildings and sent out orders to comply on a rolling basis, depending on the number of floors and apartment units of the building.

The timeline to comply with the ordinance is:

  • 2 years: submit plans for retrofitting (or demolishing), or provide proof of previous retrofitting.
  • 3.5 years: obtain permit to begin construction (or demolishing)
  • 7 years: complete construction

As of December 2nd, 2019, 810 soft-story buildings are past due for the first step, meaning they have not submitted plans even though the deadline to do so has passed. 588 buildings are still pending for the first step. Out of all 12,645 soft-story buildings notified, only 3,358 have completed construction.

How to check if your building needs a retrofit

Is your apartment building on the list of those that are past due?

What is a soft-story retrofit?

A soft-story retrofit simply adds to and reinforces the structure of the building so it can hold up much better in an earthquake. The main goal is to make sure the building is still standing after an earthquake hits and ensure the safety of everyone in and around the building.

The retrofit typically aims to lessen the effect of side-to-side shaking because that’s what usually causes the first floor of soft-story buildings to collapse. Existing walls are strengthened, often by replacing stucco or drywall with much more solid plywood, as well as anchoring these walls to the foundation. New shear walls may also be added, as they are built to resist side-to-side shaking from the wind or earthquakes. If you want to keep the look and function of your building, a more expensive option is to add a steel frame. Depending on the unique conditions of the property, there are many other options an engineer can offer.

A soft-story retrofit is a necessary investment in the safety of everyone in and around these buildings. A property owner who does not retrofit their building within the given timeframe is breaking the law. There may be legal consequences of not complying with the retrofit ordinance. Contact a lawyer to discuss any legal questions.

How do I retrofit my building?

Your first step is to hire a licensed structural engineer to determine the strength of your building and what structural additions you will need to make your building earthquake-safe.

To obtain a permit to retrofit your building, you must submit a structural analysis/calculation package, architectural plans, and structural plans. If you still have tenants living in units during construction, you must also submit a tenant habitability plan. Obtaining a permit also requires a fee.

Once you have finished drafting the plans to retrofit, you should submit them to:

Soft-Story Retrofit Unit 201 N. Figueroa St, 8th floor, Suite 890 Los Angeles, CA 90012

After the permit is issued, you can start construction. You must request inspections throughout the construction process, and only once you have passed the final inspection will your building be on the list of those which have complied.

The quickest time to retrofit is about 40 days, but can take much longer depending on the scope of the project. The earliest deadline to finish construction is May 2023. However, it’s always better to get this done sooner rather than later, as you never know when the next earthquake may strike.

How much does retrofitting cost? 

Some property owners may balk at the price of retrofitting, but it’s mandatory, it’s the law, and it’s imperative for the safety of tenants and others. The cost depends on the size and scope of the project. Smaller buildings typically average $30,000-$60,000, and larger buildings may require $80,000 to $120,000 to retrofit, but again, everyone MUST comply with the program.

Luckily, there is also a cost recovery program that property owners can apply for. If approved, the owner can pass on up to 50% of the retrofit costs to tenants. The maximum allowed rent increase is $38 per month for 120 months, and the costs must be divided between all units.

Design Everest will provide you with all the assistance you may need during your soft-story retrofit. Our highly experienced engineers will carefully inspect your building and provide cost-effective solutions to make it earthquake safe. Don’t delay! Call 877-704-5687 for a free consultation.

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