Building Permits and the Seismic Retrofit Building Code
A permit does not mean a retrofit was done right
The title of this article is a misnomer because there is no seismic retrofit building code. Because of this contractors and engineers can literally make things up in terms of what they think a retrofit consists of. That is why often times homeowners are faced with proposals that outline very different approaches at wildly different costs. Retrofitting is the application of tested scientific engineer principles in such a way that it creates an earthquake resistant building. Making things up and basing a retrofit on conjecture without incontrovertible evidence that it will be effective has no place in cost-effective seismic retrofitting.
The building department will not help you, an unknowing contractor cannot help you, and engineer who has not studied the science cannot help you. In the end, you need to study the subject yourself. You would do the same if you were thinking of buying a car, retrofits are expensive and it behooves you to learn as much as you can.
The effectiveness of your therefore has nothing to do with whether or not you got a permit. The retrofit can fail due to poor design and your house condemned as uninhabitable regardless of whether the work was done with or without a permit. Building departments will only document that something was done without evaluating its ability to resist earthquakes. They have no code to implement, therefore they only document the presences of something rather than what it will do.
Building departments don’t even allow a permit to say “seismic retrofit”, only things like “voluntary seismic upgrade” or “install hardware and plywood”, they do this because if after the earthquake you come to them and say “Hey, I thought you said my house was retrofitted!” They can say, look at the permit. It says nothing about the house being retrofitting and they are off the hook.
When you sell your home
The only time the permit issue comes up is upon time of sale. At that point you must disclose whether or not work was done without a permit.
Private home inspectors are invariably hired when a house is sold. What they discover in their inspection is the only thing that is important to a buyer. Home inspectors know full well that permitting makes no difference in terms of the quality of a retrofit; they look to see what is actually there and will evaluate the effectiveness of what they actually see.
You might ask: If a building permit does not mean anything in terms of my retrofit’s effectiveness, how can I keep records so future buyers and home inspectors know what my retrofit consists of, if much of the work is covered with plywood?
Photos are a big help as are the set of plan we provide you which show what we did and where. The narrative report we sent you is also provides a lot of information.
If shear walls are built and the bolts are hidden by plywood, we make sure and drill inspection holes in the plywood at bolt locations That way anyone who wants to can confirm the installation of bolts behind the plywood. All of these things are far more important to a buyer than a permit.
Why isn’t there a seismic retrofit building code?
Seismic retrofitting is an unregulated industry. Neither contractors nor engineers need any special licensing or education, nor as previously mentioned is there a seismic retrofit building code that they are supposed to follow. Retrofit guidelines such as Standard Plan A, and Appendix Chapter A3 of the International Existing Building Code have proven to be hopelessly outdated, impractical, and needlessly expensive. As a result contractors and engineers often, and quite literally, “make things up” when designing a seismic retrofit. This is primarily due to the fact they are not familiar with the vast array of knowledge required to properly retrofit a home.
Building departments are aware that these guidelines are inadequate but also realize doing retrofit work using bolts, plywood, and shear transfer ties found in Plan Set A and Appendix Chapter A3 will greatly benefit the earthquake resistance of a house.
There is even a report about this in The New York Times and KPIX channel 5 produced an article that demonstrated such waste occurs every day when untrained retrofit contractors do this work all over the Bay Area.
Limited Building Department Resources
Inspectors only have ten minutes to do an inspection including their paperwork, and normally have 15-20 inspections to do a day. This means they often do not even have time to see if something was done beyond shining a flashlight into the crawl space to see that there is some plywood or metal.
Our number one complaint from customers about building inspectors is “I gave them a ton of money and he didn’t even look.” Why should he when he can’t tell you if it was done properly?
A company that insists on the higher quality of their work because they get a permit is just as likely to install hardware that has absolutely no value to resist earthquakes. Without a seismic retrofit building code, building departments cannot evaluate your retrofit or determine if what was done was a waste of money.
Building departments won’t even issue permits that mention “seismic retrofit” or “earthquake retrofit” because such wording presumes that there are standards to be followed.
They also don’t want anyone coming to them later and saying “Hey, my house fell down! You issued a permit for a seismic retrofit and you obviously did not do your job.” They can simply say “Look at the permit record. It says you were allowed to install hardware for hurricanes. Who are we to interfere with your desire to do this?” This shields them from liability.
In Palo Alto they won’t even issue a permit for a seismic retrofit because they understand to do so is simply wasting money.
Santa Rosa tells its inspectors not to crawl under houses.
San Francisco does not even require plans. You can just say “I am going to put in some shiny hardware, and maybe some bolts, and perhaps some plywood but then again, I think I will leave the bolts out” and they will still issue a permit. They, along with the rest of the building departments, will approve anything.
For the highly engineered soft story retrofits we do in San Francisco, which include engineering calculations that cost the client $5,000, the building department only allows us to say “Install Steel Pole” on the permit because to say anything else exposes them to liability.
Before You Hire A Contractor
You cannot rely on the building department that grants the permit. You cannot rely on the Contractor’s State License Board because there is no licensing for retrofit contractors. You can only rely on the professionalism of the individual contractor and your ability to evaluate their professionalism. This can only be done by using the information provided on this site and our referenced sources so you can make an educated decision. Please remember that seismic retrofitting is simple, in our opinion, once it is broken down into its 3 main components.
- Educate Yourself! As a layperson, it is hard to know if your retrofit will be done right. Many “experts” in retrofitting are not experts at all. This is a field where no special licensing or training is required so experts in this field are all self-certified. Recommendations from other customers might only tell you if the contractor was friendly and cleaned up. Your only choice is to do your own research and make sure that, based on this research, you understand what your contractor is planning to do and why.
- You should also have the contractor explain to you what he is doing and why while he is doing the job. It should make sense to you. If not, have him keep explaining it until it does make sense. Howard says, “In spite of all the debate about ‘seismic engineering’, ‘tributary and uplift loads’, and ‘base shear and overturning formulas,’ retrofitting is simply figuring out a way to make sure a box (your house) does not slide on the table (the ground) when you shake the table back and forth.”
- Document each phase of your earthquake retrofit
Since there is no retrofit building code for your contractor to follow, the best approach is to take documentary photographs of the work being done as it progresses in addition to educating yourself.
Examples of this Policy in the Real World
We did a seismic retrofit on an apartment building in Oakland. On one final inspection of an Oakland building, an inspector with 20 years experience simply signed the permit card and jumped in his truck saying “Crawling under there is a waste of time and I have no code to follow.” This was in spite of the fact that the apartment owner paid the City of Oakland $1100 for a building permit.
In another incident in Berkeley, we forgot to do a bolt inspection and had covered them up with plywood. The inspector would not sign off on the permit because we needed a bolt inspection. We asked her what we should do. She said “Go back to the building department and take them off the plans. When I see that, I will sign off on the permit.” So you can’t count on the contractor, the code, or the building department or even me. It is up to you to learn all you can just as you would if you were getting ready to buy a new car.