Retrofitting Contractors: A Cheap Deal Is Not A Good Deal

Soft Story Retrofitting in Los Angeles

With the deadline almost here, retrofitting contractors are practically crawling out of the woodwork in Los Angeles. The seismic ordinances were passed in 2015, and now four years later only about 14% of the soft-story buildings have been retrofitted to meet the current standards. Many of these new companies appearing around the city are luring customers with promises of lower prices on labor and construction costs.
But remember the old adage, you get what you pay for. RetroFitting 360 has been performing seismic upgrades since 2016. We have completed numerous projects all over Los Angeles County. Many times while on a job we get the chance to see other contractors working on structures near us. What we have been seeing is making us uncomfortable.
Far too many retrofit projects are not being completed properly. This attitude of getting it done as cheaply, and quickly as possible is going to put thousands of LA residents in danger. City ordinance 183893 was created to help prevent the loss of life in the event of a major earthquake.
In 1994, when the Northridge earthquake hit the Los Angeles area several soft-story buildings collapsed. Hundreds of people were injured and 60 people lost their lives. When the Soft-Story Retrofit Program was introduced most property owners considered it unnecessary. They didn’t understand the purpose of the program. Since the owners thought of their retrofit as a burden, they chose to hire the cheapest contractors they could find.


Paying less means doing less
When it comes to a seismic retrofit, you will see three often used solutions, shear walls, cantilever columns (SCCS/OCCS), and Moment Frames (OMF/SMF). Out of the three, cantilevered columns are the cheapest option and therefore the most widely used. But, are they enough to protect your building from a major earthquake?
Surprisingly, about 95% of retrofit plans approved by the Department of Building & Safety using cantilever columns are inadequate. Just installing some reinforced steel columns may seem like the best solution on the surface, but they are not an effective solution if the wood frame of the building has decayed.
In our years of experience working on residential and commercial buildings, we have come across a number of issues that most of the new retrofitting companies are overlooking. During the initial inspection, too many contractors do not peel back the stucco to examine the existing wood frame. Once we can see the wood frame, we are often surprised. Water damage, dry rot, and termites can cause decay in the existing beams and joints.
Another part of the problem is the wording of the city ordinances. They only require that a “minimum life safety standard” or just enough to keep the building from collapsing. But the bare minimum will not be enough if the Big One everyone has been waiting for suddenly appears.


The condition of the wood-frame should shape the retrofit design
Apartment buildings often have leaky plumbing, or just suffer from old age. Existing wood subfloors grow brittle with age or decay from moisture. Aging joists may be full of knots that are ready to crack at any time. These components need proper reinforcing to withstand the forces of a major earthquake.
By just peeling back the stucco, we can determine the condition of the existing structure and use that information to create a thorough retrofit solution. Cantilever columns are the ideal solution for some buildings, just not all. A thorough retrofit should use a combination of steel columns and moment frames.


Residents will be hit hardest by shoddy retrofitting jobs
You should not just focus on the minimum building standards. You should be worried about your tenants being homeless after an earthquake. You should pay attention to the cost of the work to be done, but that cost should not be what determines the safety of your residents. Retrofitting contractors also need to keep this in mind when they are creating solutions for their clients.
The second goal of the ordinance is to increase the resilience of the city so that after an earthquake the city can quickly get back to normal. On the mandatory retrofit list are approximately 150,000 soft-story apartments. If these complexes are not reinforced property, they could collapse during a major earthquake and all of those residents will be left without a home. Plus, the owners will be out the rent money and left with huge costs in repairs.
The recent earthquakes, July 4th, and 5th have reminded everyone that this retrofit program needs to be done correctly. As most California residents know, it is just a matter of time until another major earthquake will roll through the Los Angeles area. If these apartment complexes are not retrofitted properly, it is the residents who will be hit the hardest.


You may be liable for poorly constructed retrofits
Many of these flawed design plans are approved by the city because they meet the requirements in the ordinance wording. However, that is not to say that they meet the requirements of the existing structure. If your apartment collapses during, or after, an earthquake, don’t make the mistake of thinking the city will be liable for the damages. Nor will the cheaper design company or engineer that you hired be held responsible. In almost every case, the property owner is liable since you hired the company to perform the job. The need to hire a qualified, professional company for your LA soft-story retrofit is extremely important.


Our promise to you
Our retrofitting contractors take their job very seriously. They know that lives could be on the line, so they work tirelessly to deliver the safest earthquake improvements that your building needs. We will do everything we can to keep the job cost-effective, but safety is our priority. If you would like to know more about our services contact us today.