When self-proclaimed earthquake-phobe Max Reid was in escrow for his new house in Oakland’s Rockridge district last year, he hired an inspector to check out the home’s seismic retrofitting. The report was pretty scary, Reid says; the inspector couldn’t tell whether the previous homeowner had hired a professional contractor or simply attempted it himself. “The retrofit was more cosmetic than it was functional — you could see the boards were just sort of slammed up against the wall and there was nothing more than some plywood put on the inside, and it wasn’t nailed down well,” Reid recalls. “Sometimes it wasn’t even plywood.”
Having lived through 1994’s Northridge quake, Reid had seen the damage to his friends’ homes — one had to rebuild completely; another ended up redoing his kitchen himself because local contractors were so overbooked he couldn’t hire anyone for the job. To ward off a similar fate, Reid shelled out for a new retrofit. “So much of your own personal wealth is tied up in your house that it’s worth fortifying it as much as possible,” he says.
Enter Howard Cook, a local contractor and owner of Bay Area Retrofit, who has made it a personal mission to alert local residents to the dangers lurking in their crawlspaces. Shoddy residential retrofits are prevalent in the East Bay, he says, because there’s no standard for what constitutes a good one. That means the quality can vary dramatically. Take Phyllis Potter, another of Cook’s clients, who moved into her new Berkeley home last autumn. Despite a retrofit a decade ago, the bracing in her house was not attached to the floor and the hardware used to bolt the frame to the foundation was made to resist hurricanes, not earthquakes. In a big quake, the garage probably would have separated from the front of the house. “It was done with what they knew at the time, and it just wasn’t sufficient,” she says.
Some of the common problems are hinky indeed: homemade or badly installed hardware, improper bolting, foundations so crumbly the bolts won’t stay put, plywood shot through with nails and cracked beyond usefulness, and retrofits in which the porch, rather than the front wall, has received all of the bracing. Much of this shoddy work, Cook says, is done without malicious intent by well-meaning but poorly trained contractors or do-it-yourselfers. The bigger problem, he says, is that the jobs were approved by local city building departments that don’t have any retrofit standards to enforce: “There are thousands of people who live in houses who think they have protected themselves, and they haven’t.”
How many bad retrofits exist out there? Hard to say, since most homeowners who’ve done one won’t look at it again until they sell, but it’s likely to be a sizable percentage of Bay Area homes. Cook claims 95 percent of the jobs he sees have problems, but most estimates are more restrained. Roger Robinson, CEO of the Oakland-based Star Inspection Group, which evaluates many East Bay homes when they go on the market, says about half of these homes need additional work, while about a quarter of the total have serious defects. A 1998 survey by ABAG (the Association of Bay Area Governments) and the American Society of Home Inspectors estimated that about 40 percent of Berkeley homes had proper, complete retrofits, while another 45 percent or so had “partial, but not adequate” work. In Oakland, less than 20 percent were completely retrofitted, while another 30 percent were only partially done. For San Leandro, the corresponding figures were less than 10 percent adequate, and 30 percent partial but inadequate.
Retrofit errors in single-family wood-frame houses probably aren’t a matter of life and death. Even if houses slide off their foundations, according to Brian Kirking, a senior planner for ABAG, “They aren’t likely to fall down and kill the people inside.” They are, however, likely to cause a major financial loss for the homeowner and contribute to mass displacement in the event of a regional disaster. “They’re going to be red-tagged for repairs and you aren’t going to be able to live in them for a time, so you’ll be at a friend’s or in a park in a tent,” he says.
It seems bizarre that such an earthquake-prone state has no seismic standards for existing homes, although strict ones apply to new construction. State Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, who represents much of Alameda County, is backing a bill that would institute retrofit standards for apartments built over garages or other open spaces. But for single-family homes, the uniform building code simply says the retrofit must do no harm. As long as the changes don’t weaken the structure, they are generally permitted. That gives contractors and engineers vast leeway, from doing the bare minimum to practically tearing down the house. As Robinson puts it, “There are two kinds of problems related to seismic retrofit: One is that people don’t do enough, and the other is that they do too much.”
There’s a reason state policy is so vague: It lets Californians do what they can afford. Retrofits can be expensive, particularly for homes with challenging architecture or in geologically fragile areas, and authorities would rather residents do something than nothing, says Dick McCarthy, who runs the state’s Seismic Safety Commission. He notes that a homeowner with $10,000 to spend who is told he needs $30,000 in repairs may wind up doing nothing. “There’s no overall standard there because maybe you couldn’t afford to reach the standard,” he says. “But putting bolting in and putting in plywood and strapping the water heater, that will cut the risk down.”
It’s also difficult to devise one-size-fits-all standards — a mid-20th-century building will have different seismic issues than a new one, and a three-story hillside mansion isn’t constructed like a bungalow in the flats. “If it’s a box-design house, your lateral loads are pretty simple,” says Dave Walls, program manager for California’s state housing law. “However, you’ve got houses built on angles, houses that cantilever out, and you really need an engineer to come in and provide an analysis.” State policy, he says, must also be flexible enough to accommodate changing technologies and new information about earthquake hazards.
The downside to the status quo, Cook says, is that doing no harm often does no good, and homeowners waste money on shiny hardware that doesn’t protect them. City building officials approve useless work, he says, because contractors don’t have to use the term “seismic retrofit.” They can simply state in their plans that they’re going to install Brace A or Hardware B, and as long as they do exactly that, building department officials can’t quibble with them.
Without clear standards, Cook notes, even the state’s best-intentioned preventive measures can go awry. His activism began a few years ago, he says, after the California Earthquake Authority spent $8 million so that residents could get free retrofit plans from structural engineers. CEA-approved contractors, Cook included, could then be hired to perform the work. But Cook was shocked by what he considered the poor quality of the plans. He forwarded six of the designs to a half-dozen other experts, including chief building officials for several East Bay cities, seeking their opinions. Most agreed that the designs would yield little or no improvement. Three years ago Cook printed their criticisms in a booklet, which led to the formation of an International Code Council Committee that is working to come up with new seismic standards.
Since then, the East Bay has moved a bit closer to developing a regional protocol, a set of plans devised by ABAG as a starting point for homeowners. It’s limited — if your house has a porch or an addition, more than a few steps to the first floor, prior foundation work, stands more than two stories tall, or is built on a hill, the guidelines don’t cover it. Still, El Cerrito, Hayward, Livermore, Newark, and San Leandro have adopted them, and Berkeley’s city council will consider an expanded version of the guidelines this fall.
Berkeley also has used fiscal incentives to encourage upgrades — over the last ten years, an estimated 65 percent of its homes have had some retrofit work done, thanks to a rebate the city offers on the transfer taxes that apply when a home is sold. “We see that encouragement and incentives work,” says Arietta Chakos, Berkeley’s assistant city manager. Even so, the fledgling movement to implement precise retrofit standards will have to overcome government inertia. “It’s like heart disease, or it’s like lung cancer,” Cook says. “The only time anyone cleans up their diet or quits smoking is when it’s already too late.”