Friday, January 23, 2009

The "Soft-Story" Problem and Earthquake Safety

Another Issue for Condominium Conversions

A recent article[1] in the Los Angeles Times[2] highlights an old problem that may have new consequences. The Northridge earthquake occurred 15 years ago and many southern California apartments suffered extensive damage as a result. One complex in particular however, was deadly. The Northridge Meadows apartment complex collapsed on January 17, 1994 and killed 16 residents. The collapse was due to a weak first story. Since the Sylmar earthquake in 1971, experts have known about the problem where parking or big windows exist under the upper floors of a building, and there were efforts in many cities to beef up building codes to prevent building collapse in a seismic event.

The article points out that many landlords took steps to perform interim structural repairs, but that in many cases those repairs were not permanent or were not done at all. The small posts, for example that support upper floors over carports cannot withstand the movement that occurs in an earthquake.

“In the case of Northridge Meadows, the magnitude 6.7 temblor caused the second and third floors to crumple right down onto the lower floors, leaving some cars poking out of the sides of the buildings. Its collapse caused the largest number of deaths in a soft-story building. The 16 people who died were on the first floor”[3]

Government agencies have not exactly been on a fast track to force repairs. Fremont is reported to have sent out notices to the owners of 28 apartment buildings in 2007, the year its enhanced codes went into effect, but only two have completed the necessary retrofit. In Berkeley where 320 buildings have been identified with soft first stories, only half have applied for correction permits.

Our concern, however, is for the numerous condominium complexes that have been converted from older apartment buildings. We have seen many that were built before 1994 and some which appear to have soft first stories--mainly where parking exists under the second or more stories of the building. Our experience is that Boards of Directors of community associations responsible for these buildings barely have sufficient funding to do routine painting and roof repairs. The cost of a seismic retrofit is not only unbudgeted, but probably could not be funded short of a large special assessment which would have to be approved by the owners. An expense of that magnitude could be the difference between economic survival and obsolescence.

We recommend that any suspected “soft-story” condition be immediately inspected by a structural engineer. If the conversion has been recently done, the seller may be responsible for the costs of a retrofit if one is necessary. But in any case, the Board and the owners will need assurance that if the “big one” hits the Hayward or the San Andreas Fault, Bay Area communities will not suffer the same fate as they did in Northridge.

[1] My thanks to Fred Pilot and Evan McKenzie for providing this article.

[2] Chong, “Quake vulnerability of ‘soft-story’ apartments in state still widespread,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2009

[3] Ibid.


  1. We are encouraged to see that some Bay Area cities are beginning to act.

    Berkeley and Fremont both have soft-story ordinances and Alameda is soon to follow.

  2. Hmmmm, that's another way of looking at it. Great post.

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