Retrofit blog


Soft Story Retrofit Mistakes | Doing the Bare Minimum


What are the biggest mistakes contractors, engineers, and building owners make on their retrofit project?

Soft Story Retrofit Mistakes in Los Angeles

What are the biggest mistakes people make when dealing with soft-story buildings? They try to solve the wrong problem – But How? When the city of Los Angeles passed ordinance 183893 and 184081 to require seismic retrofit for older buildings with ‘tuck in’ parking, many property owners described it as an “unreasonable burden”.

Property owners think that they have a ‘compliance problem’ and that they must comply with the retrofit ordinance, when in fact they have a ‘health and safety problem’. The main goal of a seismic retrofit is to help prevent the collapse of an apartment building in the event of a large earthquake, and thus preventing any tenant fatalities. In 1994, the Northridge Earthquake caused 57 deaths when the strong shaking caused several apartment buildings to collapse [1]. But these are two completely different problems, and they will have a very different impact on the outcome because they lead to different approaches.

Compliance & Safety

Think about the last time you received a speeding ticket (or any other type infraction). The second you saw the red & blue lights in your rearview mirror you could feel the anxiety of the situation. Once the officer issued the citation your mind starts racing about the financial penalty, the money, and how you’ll have to spend hours and perhaps days at traffic court. All that effort just to make the ticket go away, to comply, and to ‘get compliant’. As a result of all the hoops you have to jump through, you now start looking for a way to do the bare minimum to get the ticket paid, just the minimum amount of effort to prevent your insurance rate from going up next year. Your entire mindset is set on doing the bare minimum, to spend the least amount of money to make this problem go away.


Seismic Retrofits are a Public Safety Issue

Take Care of the Building

The soft-story retrofit program of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood are a ‘health and safety’ initiative. As mentioned earlier, the mission is to prevent deaths in the event of a large earthquake by reinforcing older apartment buildings that are identified as being weak and capable of collapsing during a quake. Suppose that something or someone you really care about has fallen ill. They are sick, distressed, and in need of immediate medical attention. You may have long suspected that they were sick, but now you can clearly see they are ill. So how will you approach this problem? You will seek expert advice in order to identify what is wrong and heal them, you’ll rush them to the nearest Urgent Care facility or even the nearest Emergency Room. You love this person, and you’ll willingly spend time and money to make sure that they are diagnosed and taken care of. Chances are that you will take them to a specialist. You will also take the time to research the disease to better understand what you are facing. Ultimately you are engaged in the preservation and protection of this person you hold dear. Under this mindset, you will spend an infinite amount of money and time to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome and a speedy recovery. You are vested both economically and emotionally in a positive outcome. Frankly, you simply care more! The same should be said about your multifamily property that is in need of a seismic retrofit.

64% of Angelenos are Renters

Let’s talk about what these “soft story” apartment buildings represent. To the building owners, they represent a large portion of their wealth, their net worth. In the majority of cases, they are a legacy property that has been in the family for multiple generations and has been passed down to their children. In other cases, the building is part of a larger portfolio of properties and investments. But to the tenants, the building is their home, the place they have lived in for years and sometimes even generations. And for tenants under rent control, they represent affordable housing that is hard to come by and not easily replaced. In 2018, Curbed reported that over 64% of Angelinos are renters [2]. If a large percentage of these buildings are severely damaged during an earthquake and are “red-tagged”, it would cause a massive disruption in housing and would likely cause a mass migration out of the city. The Northridge Earthquake caused over $40 billion dollars in damage and a total of $150 billion dollars in total economic losses in Los Angeles [3][4].


Collapsed building after 1994 Northridge Earthquake

These apartment buildings are a major component of the community and the Los Angeles housing market. It is important for property owners to realize that that the soft story retrofit ordinance requires a ‘minimum life safety standard’ (prevent structural collapse). This means that a retrofitted building could still suffer significant damage during an earthquake and could possibly be red-tagged. Sadly, many of the retrofit solutions that I have seen are don’t do enough to fully protect the structure. Although these solutions will prevent the total collapse of the building during a large earthquake, I fear that they will cause (preventable) damage to the existing wood-frame of the building. Property owners should do everything in their power to best protect their investments, their family holdings, just the same as they would a sick family member, no matter the cost. A comprehensive retrofit solution is necessary to ensure the entire structure is reinforced to withstand a major earthquake. You can learn more about retrofit solutions by reading Will the Retrofit Ordinance Protect My Building? In this article, I discuss the unintended consequences that result when property owners focus solely on keeping costs low by doing the bare minimum.

Look at what can happen to a structure that is not retrofitted.

The correct mindset should be focused on health and safety which should deliver clarity in answering the following: How can we make the building stronger? How can we integrate the retrofit solution in a way that does not break the building?

Some of you may be skeptical about my thesis? Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts? Do you want to learn more about what are the best methodologies for a retrofit?



[1] – National Public Radio (2019) 25 Years AFTER Northridge Earthquake, Is LA Ready For The Next Big One?

[2] – Chiland, Elijah (2018) Curbed Los Angeles. Study: LA’s rate of Homeownership is lowest in the nation.

[3] National Public Radio (2019) 25 Years AFTER Northridge Earthquake, Is LA Ready For The Next Big One?

[4] Nahai Insurance (2014) Northridge Earthquake: 20 Years Later