By Steven Stajich
As this column wrote in late November, the City of Santa Monica is now pursuing earthquake retrofitting of buildings and homes with renewed vigor. Vigor that no doubt stems from something of an oversight in which a list of the buildings requiring the work seems to have somehow disappeared in the early 2000s with the departure of some key city staff members. By 2013, the city could not find that list.
That list has been recreated and Santa Monica is now taking the lead by being the first city in California to publicly post such a list and to add to it examination of the safety of steel frame buildings, which were once considered by seismic experts to be among the safest. Whether such forward-looking efforts will be enough and soon enough depends of course on Mother Nature, or at least Mother Nature’s evil twins… California earthquakes and fault lines.
The Los Angeles Times Monday, February 13, called Santa Monica’s renewed efforts to make safety improvements “the nation’s most extensive seismic retrofitting effort.”
But let’s acknowledge another “nature”… human nature. When the brakes on your family car start to squeak, you immediately seek repairs. But it’s something else to have the city tell you, whether it’s your home or a building you own, that costly work needs to be done to retrofit for quakes. You drive that car every day, but quakes are unpredictable and their fury is never fully known until it’s too late.
So it gave me pause when The Times pointed out that, assuming new measures pass, that brittle concrete buildings will have a deadline of 10 years, wooden apartment buildings would get six years, tilt ups three years, and brick buildings two years. I’m hoping someone has access to Mother Nature’s calendar.
Tilt-up construction is relatively new. According to the website for the Tilt-Up Concrete Association, it’s “one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, combining the advantages of reasonable cost with low maintenance, durability, speed of construction and minimal capital investment.” When you notice that a new building has gone up in what seems like the blink of an eye, it’s likely that’s the sort of construction – site-cast cement walls then tilted up – that you’re looking at.
Older tilt-ups have exhibited poor performance in earthquakes and mandated significant retrofitting. And before those concerns came angst over buildings with street level car ports. Many remember the photos of an apartment complex second floor that fell on cars parked below after the Northridge Quake in 1994.
None of this is to point a finger at any one process pursued in either construction or in the maintenance of older buildings. The building I work in behind my home, where I’m typing these very words, is one half of a wooden garage that has suffered significant chewing by termites. In fact, if I don’t finish this paragraph, you’ll know I was as behind on retrofitting as the next person.
This past Monday CBS News did a story on exhaust fumes in certain Ford SUV’s that are leaking into the passenger cabs of those vehicles. Do I believe that Ford was looking to gas its own customers? I am referring you back to my reference on human nature.
Earthquakes have a dangerous duel personality: They can be few and very far between, but they can be deadly. And then there’s the maxim that goes “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people.” From that, and the costs involved with retrofitting, we are asked to develop an attitude about quakes. One could say that a city that has focused on getting the gluten out of its diet should be devoting at least as much attention and concern to the tensile strength of the buildings we live and work in. Our new dedication to retrofitting will be costly but as the recent Times article quoted our own mayor Ted Winterer, “that process is much preferable to the loss of life and the destruction of buildings.” Let’s get to work, and I’ll bring some gluten-free sandwiches to the retrofitting sites.