A Building Owner’s Dilemma

It’s Bigger Than Your Building

Seismic Retrofit Historic Building 140 New Montgomery

By investing in your building, you are actually investing in something much greater—you are investing in the lives and resiliency of your community at large.


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Contact: Dan Bech, Principal

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If you have received a seismic ordinance notice, it means that your local building authority has identified your building as potentially vulnerable during a seismic event (and less likely to withstand even a moderate earthquake). A seismic retrofit ordinance often mandates some level of strengthening per the city’s local building code requirements. These ordinances target building types susceptible to a higher risk of collapse, and loss of life, due to known structural vulnerabilities and/or deficiencies.

Holmes Structures is here to guide building owners and help them understand how the seismic ordinance affects their investment, and the process to strengthen and repair in order to comply with the city’s building code standards. Time is of the essence, this is your opportunity to protect your building, your tenants and your community before the next earthquake occurs.

Here are some of the reasons why seismic retrofitting your building now versus later matters:

Post-Earthquake Costs Add Up

Building repairs cost more after an earthquake than the cost associated with retrofit interventions prior to the earthquake. Building damage is not limited to damage of its structural components – damage to building services and non-structural elements is also likely, including windows and partitions, mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems, and more. After an earthquake, building owners are more likely to pay a premium to return the building to a functioning, operational state, provided the building can be economically repaired. Menwhile, you are likely to lose tenant income. Loss of revenue can add up quickly.

Minimize Downtime

When building owners comply with a city’s seismic ordinance, they increase the likelihood that a building will be less damaged following a moderate earthquake. It is more likely that a building can sustain the seismic forces of an earthquake with minimal damage. Because of having less structural damage, it is possible that the building may be returned to functional use (or limited use) in a shorter time frame versus without it being retrofitted. Addressing the seismic ordinance in a timely manner is a smart investment.

A building not seismically retrofitted may experience the following consequences after an earthquake:

  • Swift repairs are needed to secure its future use and incoming revenue
  • The building owner must react quickly to procure and retain the services of contractors and other construction specialists while competing with other post-earthquake demands from other parties
  • City officials may be overrun with permit applications for post-earthquake repairs which may cause delays in returning the building to a functioning, operational state

Prioritize Life Safety 

The EPA estimates that on average, people spend 90% of their daily lives inside of buildings. The odds are stacked that you, your tenants, and everyone else in your densely populated area will probably be inside of or within proximity to a building when the next Big One hits. Enhancing life safety for your building means improving the margin of safety against collapse and affording building occupants enough time to safely evacuate. Therefore, complying with a seismic ordinance reduces your building’s risk of collapse, which poses an imminent threat to preserving lives and preventing serious injury. When building owners and structural engineers partner on seismic ordinances, we not only fulfill our professional and civic duties–we potentially save lives.

Improve Community Resiliency

By strengthening your building, you are contributing to a more resilient city. Buildings house our homes, our workplaces, our hospitals and our government.  Our community is more resilient when these structures do not collapse, but resiliency goes beyond that. While seismic ordinances generally target collapse prevention objectives, they are not concerned with the operability or reparability of the building following a significant earthquake. You have the opportunity to do better for your building. In many instances it is possible to improve the seismic performance of a building beyond the minimum requirements of the seismic ordinance with modest additional investments. Holmes Structures can advise you on these enhanced seismic performance objectives.

A building’s structure is the skeleton that supports the systems that help it function, such as Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) systems. Non-structural components of a building, such as MEP, are not required to be addressed by seismic ordinances. When a large portion of a city’s buildings are not repairable or are rendered unusable, the city’s residents and even entire industries at the heart of the local economy may be forced to relocate. The more quickly building owners comply with seismic ordinances, the more likely that, piece by piece and building by building, a city will retain its people, character and capital in the face of the next natural disaster.

Recent Seismic Ordinances in California

  • West Hollywood Ordinance #17-1004
    Implemented: 2018
    Required Completion: 2038
  • Mandatory strengthening provisions apply to all non-ductile concrete buildings constructed before the 1979 Uniform Building Code, as well as pre-Northridge steel moment frame buildings. Additional buildings have been classified as ‘Undetermined’ by the City and may fall under the Ordinance.


  • Santa Monica Ordinance #2537
    Implemented: 2017
    Required Completion: 2020 – 2037 (depending on building type)
    All pre-Northridge moment frame buildings (constructed prior to January 1996) and all non-ductile concrete buildings constructed prior to January 1977 must be evaluated and retrofitted to meet the required seismic performance objectives.


  • Los Angeles Non-Ductile Concrete Ordinance #183893 
    Implemented: 2015
    Required Completion: 2040
    Concrete buildings with a roof and/or floor supported by a concrete wall or concrete column, constructed before 1977 fall under the ordinance. The timeline stipulates enrolling in the program and either proving existing compliance through previous improvements or completing a retrofit over the next 25 years.


  • San Francisco Mandatory Soft-Story Program
    Implemented: 2013
    Required Completion: 2020
    SF Department of Building Inspection program to improve the safety and resilience of San Francisco’s housing stock through the retrofit of older, wood-framed, multi-family buildings with a soft-story condition.



The High Seismic States of Oregon, Washington and Utah

The States of Oregon, Washington and Utah also have high earthquake risks with a large number of vulnerable building types. These states and their municipalities are currently pending legislation to pass Seismic Ordinances, per the articles below.