by David.

With the inevitable large earthquake on the horizon and the large stock of weak wood-framed buildings built before modern earthquake code changes in the late 70’s, San Francisco decided to be proactive about protecting its housing stock. The soft story ordinance requires owners of buildings with 5 or more units and 2 or more stories to retrofit/strengthen their weak buildings.


A soft story building is one that has an open facade (garage opening, windows, doors, etc…) on the ground floor, thus making the ground floors less stiff than the upper ones. These buildings are susceptible to large amounts of side-sway in an earthquake and are vulnerable to collapse.


Most common soft story retrofits in SF will consist of installing some of the following seismic resisting elements:

  • Bolting wood structure to foundation on all exterior walls
  • Adding plywood shear walls on all basement or lower story walls
  • Steel moment frame (see Simpson moment frame below as one option)
  • Light gauge seismic hardware (clips, straps, ties, etc…)
  • Reinforced or new foundation elements

What is required for each retrofit job is specific to each building and is based on a building’s weight, geometry, and existing construction.


This form, sent to every owner of buildings on the list, verifies whether buildings meet the criteria of the ordinance and categorizes the buildings into 4 different “ compliance tiers.” Each tier has a different deadline for completion of the work. Larger buildings with 15 or more units or ones that have more public zoning are deemed to be higher risk for loss of life in an earthquake, and are therefore required to be completed first. In contrast, soft story buildings that have ground floor commercial have been assigned to a later deadline to provide owners with more time to perform the seismic work.

The screening forms must all be submitted by September 15, 2014.

Link to Screening Form


The ordinance will exempt structural work for retrofits completed within the last 15 years if they satisfy certain current code requirements. In order to accept these exemptions, the city will also need documentation of the previous retrofit work: plans, calculations, permit records, and anything else that may help show the extent of the seismic work and verify its completion.

In order to gain exemption from the soft story ordinance for such previously completed seismic work, owners may engage an engineer to fill out the optional evaluation form. An engineer may still need to perform calculations to show that the completed work meets the current code standards as required by the ordinance.

Link to Optional Evaluation Form


  1. Contact an engineer to meet you on-site and review the condition of the building. Have them fill out and submit the soft story screening form
  2. Have engineer develop a set of plans for the retrofit work
  3. Use plans to get bids for the seismic work and begin with construction

If you have any questions about the process or want to discuss moving forward with engineering plans for your soft story building, feel free to give me a call.


San Francisco Soft Story Program page

SF Soft Story Blog

Simpson Strongtie Moment Frames

Simpson Strong Wall Shear Panels 


Soft Story Buildings

by David.


A soft-story residential building is one that has open parking or commercial space on the ground floor with residential upper floors. They are usually 2-4 stories and have been built prior to more recent earthquake codes.

The issue with having a first floor that is structurally weaker than the more rigid floors above is that these buildings become subject to large side-sway and are susceptible to collapse or damage beyond repair in large earthquakes (see picture below).

Recent studies done by Bay Area governments show that in a large earthquake on the Hayward or San Andreas fault, a majority of the uninhabitable housing will likely be in soft-story buildings.

The risk of soft-story buildings is property damage, loss of housing, and potential loss of life in the case of collapse.


For smaller wood framed soft-story buildings, the easiest retrofit is sometimes adding plywood shear walls or pre-manufactured shear panels. Since adding walls may disrupt the open space and challenge the existing parking on the ground floor, this solution is not always an option.

Another common solution in retrofitting soft-story conditions is adding a steel moment frame or steel moment columns. This is most commonly used to preserve the existing parking spaces of the building (see picture above). These structural elements are designed to take the lateral forces of the earthquake on the open/weak side of the building.

There are a couple other possibilities, depending on the building geometry and retrofit criteria. But regardless of the design, these seismic retrofits would need to be prepared by a licensed civil or structural engineer.


Soft stories pose a great risk to cities because if many of these buildings collapse, there will be a large loss of housing and a greater strain on post-earthquake recovery.

Bay Area cities have taken measures to determine how much inventory they have of these soft-story buildings. The ordinances are to alert the general public of these buildings’ vulnerability during large earthquakes and provide incentive for retrofits that make the buildings more safe.

Below you will find some links to some of the Bay Area Cities’ soft-story programs. For further information or discussing the options of what to do with your building, give me a call. I’d be happy to consult with you and discuss the possibilities.









by David.

In this part 2 on Buying a New Home, I’m going to speak to some of the important considerations of the site that you’ll want to know about before buying your new home.


The type of soil found on the site of the home is important to the stability of the building for numerous reasons. Some soils, like clays, are more susceptible to sliding, especially when rain lubricates the different layers of the clay. Soft soils, like those located near the bay, can become saturated during an earthquake turning the soil into quicksand and damaging a building.

The type of soil also affects the intensity of an earthquake shaking in a seismic event. Softer soils, like those found alongside the bay and in landfills, will amplify ground shaking and cause more damage. Structures built on bedrock that are near a fault have shown to perform better in earthquakes than those built on looser soils much further from the epicenter.


The considerations for buying a home on a slope are usually greater than those that are not. It’s imperative to know if you’re in an area of an active landslide or creep zone by either looking at landslide maps from the city or consulting a soils engineer. Poor grading during construction can also create a localized landslide that is more difficult to detect and wouldn’t be on a landslide map. As mentioned above, earthquakes can also cause hillside soils to move that would otherwise be stable and thereby increase the potential for a landslide.

It’s a good idea to contact a soils engineer if you are purchasing a property on a slope or a hillside, or atleast contact an engineer to assess whether a soils professional would be necessary. Local soils engineers will often know where active slides and faults are located and can provide essential information on how these hazards may affect your home. For some resources of your own, see the bottom of this article.


The greatest building damage is dependent on the amount of ground shaking. The amount of ground shaking is dependent on the distance to the fault and as mentioned before, the type of soil underneath the building.

The greatest risk to a building near a fault is a ground-surface rupture beneath it. This is a major risk for homes that straddle a fault and one that no building can withstand. It is thereby very important to know how far any new home is from any active faults. For ones that are close, it’d be prudent to get it checked out by a soils engineer or geologist with adequate maps to local any traces of the fault.

I hope this gives you a basic idea of what to look for on the site of your potential new home. If not, please contact me for for a more in depth look at your home.




BUYING A NEW HOME – PART 1: The Building

by David.

When buying a new home, it is important to know the many elements of the site and building that you’re buying. In this part 1, I’m going to speak to some of the important structural building elements that you’ll want to look into and know about before buying your new home.


The foundation is one of the more major structural elements of a home. Replacing or retrofitting a foundation can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so it’s important to know what you’re buying and all foundations are certainly not created equal.

In looking at the foundation, I’m wanting to know whether it’s bolted, what the quality of concrete is like, and whether there’s any cracking as a result of foundation movement. For more in depth information on foundations and what to do with the different kinds you may find, see the following two articles: Inspecting a Foundation and What to do with my Foundation.


Walls are part of what help a building resist the lateral forces of an earthquake. One of the things I’m looking at in a home is where the walls are placed in the weaker portions of the home (usually the shorter dimension of the home). For example, if one whole side of the home is windows with no walls, then this side of the home is laterally deficient.

The actual framing members of the building (floor joists, roof rafters and studs) are usually not exposed as they are hidden behind sheetrock and other finishes. If I could get a look at the framing, I’d want to see that they are in tact and have not been affected by a leak, fire, termites, or other cause.


The inside of a home can give you a lot of information about how the structure has performed over time and how well the building has been constructed. For example:

  • If the floors inside are sloped, I’d wonder about what’s happened to the framing below or whether the foundation has settled.
  • If walls are out of plumb or doors/windows are hard to close, it makes me think that one side of the building has settled relative to the other (usually the downhill side is moving). This movement will often continue unless something is done about it and although it is not often a structural issue, it can be an aesthetic nuisance.

In case of an earthquake, it’s important that you have a motion sensitive automatic gas shutoff valve, that the water heater is strapped, and the chimney is reinforced or supported. Some cities, like Berkeley, will even refund you some of their county transfer tax for doing some of this work. See the article on Earthquake Retrofits and Berkeley’s Seismic Retrofit Rebate Policy.

I’d also want to know if any of the additions and remodels on the house were done with a permit or not. Since jobs done without a permit won’t be inspected by city building officials and are less likely to be inspected by the design professionals, the construction is sometimes not up to code and the quality is often inferior. You can gain access to the public records of a building down at most city building departments.

I hope this helps give you an idea of what I’d be looking at as an engineer when buying a new home. For part 2 of this article about the building site and potential hazards, see Buying a Home Part 2: The Site.

What to do with my foundation

by David.

A Guide to reinforcing/retrofitting an existing foundation

(This is a follow up to the article titled: Inspecting a foundation)

Sometimes there is a combination of the previously outlined issues (see Inspecting a foundation) and it isn’t clear what needs to be done, if anything. A main criteria of an existing foundation is to be able to hold the epoxy retrofit bolts and anchor the structure to its foundation. The best and cheapest first step for foundations that are difficult to visually assess is to install some anchor bolts in them and test them. They can be tested with a “torque test”  or “pull test,” whereby a certain amount of torque/tension is applied to the bolt. If the bolt can hold in the foundation without breaking or cracking the foundation, then the connection is sufficient and the foundation will most likely serve its purpose during an earthquake. Most foundations however, can be visually assessed.

Making the decision on what to do with your foundation also depends on your performance criteria. If the cracks in the wall and sloping floors are the only issue, you may not choose to replace or reinforce your foundation. However, if you wanted to put new tile in the bathroom or other finishes more sensitive to movement, you may elect to have a more stiff foundation that requires some work.

I’ve outlined some options below on what can be done with an existing foundation.

Encase existing foundation: Depending on the access to the existing foundation, it may be possible to add some new concrete adjacent to the old foundation and avoid removing the existing foundation. This is a common option and one that adds significant strength to the foundation system of the house and will extend the life of the foundation considerably. It will also give you the ability to bolt the house to the newer foundation making for a more secure bolted connection.

Reinforce: There are numerous ways to do this and the best solution will be based on site conditions, access for equipment, and performance criteria.  Some options are installing bench piers every 6′-8′, capping the existing foundation with fresh concrete, creating a concrete curtain wall on the inside of the existing foundation, and even pouring drilled piers in the case of more extreme movement.

Replacing: A new one is almost always the most expensive and best performing option. Though costly and labor intensive, a new foundation will last the longest and could save major damage to your house. Replacing a foundation also gives you the chance to add new drainage alongside the new foundation if water infiltration and expansive clay soils have been an issue. It some circumstances, it is also possible to replace only portions of a foundation.

Not doing anything: Always an option and sometimes just a fine one. Some foundation “issues” are often more aesthetic than they are structural problems, such is the case with settlement. It would be important to keep an eye on the foundation over the years.

If you have more questions about your property or project, feel free to give me a call. I am happy to consult with you.

Inspecting a Foundation

by David.

I get calls from people buying a house who want their foundation inspected. Since it’s a major component of any structure and costly to replace, it’s important to know what you’re buying into. I thought I’d share some wisdom on what I’m looking for when I come out for an inspection of an existing foundation.

It first helps to understand what a foundation is meant to do:

  1. Dissipate the gravitational loads (weight) of the building into the soil
  2. Transfer lateral loads from wind or earthquakes into the ground while maintaining the integrity of the structure.

Most existing foundations, even the brick ones, are adequate for supporting the weight of the structure. The issue in highly seismic areas like the Bay Area and most parts of California is determining the adequacy of a foundation in supporting the structure during an earthquake. Here are some of the potential issues with foundations and the things I’ll look for when inspecting:

Foundation quality – Foundations in the late 19th and early 20th century were mainly made of unreinforced masonry (brick) or poor quality/unreinforced concrete. The main deficiency with these foundations is their inability to transfer tensile forces (being pulled on). As a result, there is a tendency for the structure to disengage from the footing during an earthquake.  Under most conditions, brick (or poor/unreinforced concrete) foundations should be retrofitted by pouring fresh concrete on top (capping), along side (encapsulating), or just replacing it.

Settlement – The majority of settlement resulting from poor soil occurs within the first 5 to 10 years. Settlement, although potentially unsightly, is not necessarily a critical structural deficiency. Foundations usually settle as a result of soil consolidation, sometimes a result of wet soil. Some signs of settlement include sloping floors, cracked plaster/stucco, tilted door frames, and cracks in the foundation.

Concrete Cracking – One of the things you can always expect concrete to do is crack. It may crack from movement, settlement, shrinkage, poor placement, bad mixture, insufficient reinforcing, etc… More major cracking is a sign that there has been movement. Cracks in concrete are an indication of experienced tension across the crack line. The tension may be from the causes mentioned above.

Soil Condition – The interaction between the soil and the foundation is very important and it’s good to know the precautions of each kind. Clay soils, found in many areas in the east bay, don’t drain well and are sometimes expansive. Expansive soils expand with water and will create large forces on foundations. It is particularly important to keep water away from these foundations as best as possible. Another example might be the bay mud soils like in the Marina. There is the concern of liquefaction with these soils and they require special considerations.

Sloping Site – Sloping sites have a greater demand on the foundation since there is a component of gravity from the soil acting on the foundation. This force is also amplified during an earthquake. Sloping sites usually require special considerations and potentially a soils report.

More often, foundation problems are a combination of several of the outlined issues.

I hope this helps demystify what engineers are looking for when inspecting a foundation. If you have more questions about your property or project, feel free to give me a call. I am happy to consult with you.

Earthquake Retrofits and Berkeley’s Seismic Rebate

by David.

A lot of cities offer incentives for homeowners to do seismic retrofits and it’s for good reason. A seismic retrofit of your building is the most effective thing you could do to make your home or building more safe in case of an earthquake. In many cases, it’s not that expensive either. Most people know that the Hayward and San Andreas fault are both active faults capable of producing major earthquakes. What they may not know is how easy it is to perform a seismic retrofit.

During an earthquake, the forces generated by the ground motion send seismic energy through a building. In a properly designed building, the seismic forces will transfer through the structure and back down into the ground, leaving the building in tact. The key here is in properly connecting the building elements to have a continuous load path and in connecting the wood structure to the foundation.

A seismic retrofit is any modification of an existing structure that would make it more resistant to an earthquake. Here’s a list of qualifying seismic retrofit work from the City of Berkeley’s program to give you an idea of what a retrofit might entail:


  • Replacement/Repair of foundation
  • Replacement/repair of rotted mudsills
  • Bracing of basement pony walls
  • Bolting of mudsills to foundation
  • Installing plywood shearwalls on particularly weak walls of the house
  • Securing of chimneys
  • Anchoring water heaters

The City of Berkeley has a particularly rewarding seismic program where they will refund a portion of the city transfer tax from the property’s sale as incentive for you to do seismic work. Here’s the wording:

“A property transfer tax of 1.5 % is imposed on all transfers by deeds, instruments, writings or any other document by which any lands, tenements, or other interests in real property are sold, located in the City of Berkeley… The Seismic Retrofit Refund Program allows for up to 1/3 of the City of Berkeley transfer tax to be refunded for voluntary seismic upgrades to residential property.”

So for a $750,000 sale price, there’s a potential $3750 rebate waiting for you to make your home more safe.

Property owners have 1-year after the sale was recorded to complete the work and file for the refund. The City recommends that you call or visit the Building and Safety Division in advance to make sure the improvements are eligible. The city does also grant extensions on a case-by-case basis for serious illness or unforeseen circumstance. Take a look at their seismic retrofit program and refund guidelines form for the refund process and extension possibilities.


1) Structures used exclusively for residential purposes or any mixed use structure that contains two or more dwellings

2) Properties that have already been retrofitted are still eligible, but would need to do different qualifying seismic work

3) If the seismic work was performed prior to October 17, 1989, then it is not eligible for this refund.

There is no such thing as an earthquake proof structure. But, there are significant and often very simple improvements that can be made to an existing structure to enhance its performance in an earthquake.

I’ve listed some resources below on the City’s website. If you need help with this process, I am familiar with their program and can help you complete the refund process. Regardless of how you do it, take advantage of this incentive and the opportunity to make sure your structure is as safe as it can be.


Here is the page on Berkeley’s Seismic Retrofit refund where you will be able to find the application and program guidelines.

Earthquake Resources and Links

by David.

Homeowner’s guide to earthquake safety

Learn more about earthquakes:

Earthquake resources and how to prepare:

Bay Area specific Earthquake and hazard info

City of Berkeley Geological Hazards Zones (earthquake faults and landslides)

Property owners’ guide to earthquake safety

Oakland seismic rebate program

by David.

The City of Oakland has an established retrofit incentive that enables homeowners to pay a flat permit fee of $250 for doing voluntary seismic work. The very active Hayward fault runs through Oakland and the vast majority of Oakland’s residential building stock was built before modern earthquake codes were adopted (and not many of them have been strengthened since). Therefore the city wanted to provide easier permitting for retrofits. They also noticed that many homeowners were avoiding the permit process altogether in doing their retrofits, creating more sub-par retrofits than weren’t being inspected. More info on Oakland’s permitting process can be found here.

For owner-occupied, low-income households, the City “provides matching grants… for the completion of seismic retrofit repairs.” This is a matching grant of up to $5,000 for completing the work. Applications can be found here.

See article on Berkeley’s seismic rebate program or the FAQ on retrofits for more info on retrofits.