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By John Biggs
November 19, 2018
The City of Angels is not taking any chances when it comes to earthquake safety.
Los Angeles recently handed out notices to thousands of owners of older concrete buildings city wide that it will soon expect to see proof of compliance. This comes after a recently passed city ordinance mandating they be retrofitted to better withstand earthquakes and meet requirements set out in modern building codes. It’s the first such ordinance in the U.S.
The ordinance, dubbed “Mandatory Earthquake Hazard Reduction in Existing Non-Ductile Concrete Buildings,” was introduced by the city in 2015 and applies to any concrete building with a permit application earlier than Jan. 13, 1977, with an exception for non-freestanding one- and two-family houses. Including wooden structures, the ordinance affects roughly 15,000 buildings city-wide, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Earthquakes are among the most devastating natural disasters imaginable for structures, and the U.S. West Coast is the epicenter for most of the fault lines and seismic activity in the country, with Southern California especially vulnerable. Los Angeles itself sits just 30 miles from the San Andreas fault, well within the danger zone.
A 2008 U.S. Geological Survey estimated a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hitting the area could cause more than 1,800 deaths, 50,000 injuries and more than $200 billion in damage, the Los Angeles Times reports. With L.A. being the second largest city in America, it’s no wonder it is taking the looming threat seriously by implementing the most stringent earthquake safety rules in the nation.
The retrofits don’t come cheaply, however, with an L.A. Times report estimating the cost of the retrofits to range between $60,000 and “millions.” This has owners scrambling to cover the cost of the phased compliance requirements, which mandate plans to comply within 10 years and all retrofits completed within 25. After that 25 year period, all buildings that were found not to be in compliance must either have the work completed or be demolished. According to TheRealDeal, approximately 3,000 owners have started the retrofitting process as of last November, with more than 300 buildings already having completed work.
Construction Dive writes that retrofits on the concrete structures will be the most expensive, for which surveying and engineering costs alone are estimated to run $100,000. In response, earlier this year the city agreed to help owners of affected buildings shoulder the cost of the retrofits. The city’s Seismic Retrofit Program can provide 50% of the costs incurred, and the city is currently exploring other avenues where additional funds can be found, including the city’s Affordable Housing Trust.
Even outside of L.A. County, other potentially vulnerable structures are putting serious money into retrofitting efforts of their own, in some cases completely replacing buildings. California hospitals must also contend with meeting state earthquake standards, and Scripps Health is reportedly undergoing a $2.6 billion construction project to revamp five of its San Diego-area campuses.
Replacing Scripps Mercy Hospital in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego will be the biggest single piece of the project, consuming 50% of the total budget with a price tag of $1.3 billion. The remaining costs will go toward seismic upgrades, as well as a new acute care facility and oncology center.
The mandate is not without its critics. Engineering News Record has quoted engineers highlighting some of the details of the ordinance, such as the requirement for a structural analysis proving a building’s lateral-force resistance meets or exceeds 75% of the shear in today’s building codes, as “arbitrary”.
Some have also taken issue with the focus on building age. David Bonowitz, a Bay Area-based structural engineer, told ENR that such a plan “should be about severely deficient new and existing occupancies”.
Other objections stem from the use of L.A. city code as the basis for the ordinance, rather than the American Society of Civil Engineers’ standard, which they say is updated more frequently and takes more factors into account than the city document.
If you liked this article, here are a few eBooks and webinars you may enjoy:
Building a Culture of Safety - One Hard Hat at a Time
The 10 Most Critical Factors in Construction Safety
Track & Verify for Design Management
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