Earthquakes and Unreinforced Masonry Buildings

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When the Nisqually Earthquake hit, I was in the Pioneer Building in Pioneer Square, an older brick building.  While skyscrapers swayed, the Pioneer Building was bouncing up and down, and a window shattered a few feet from me.  That building has been retrofitted since then, but it is a great example of the kind of building – Unreinforced Masonry (URM) — that keeps emergency management people up at night.  You don’t want you or anyone you care about to be in one when the big earthquake strikes Seattle.

That’s why I have been working on finding a way to get these buildings upgraded, and we have now taken the next step by convening a Policy Committee of interested stakeholders to provide feedback to City Staff, the Mayor and City Council on options for developing a retrofit program for URMs. 

There are over 800 URM buildings in Seattle.  These buildings are typically relatively low, located in older areas of the City, and are of the highest concern for possible collapse when a large earthquake takes place.  The earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, Japan, and Indonesia over the last few years have demonstrated how dangerous a place the Pacific Rim is – and the only region not yet affected is the Pacific Northwest.  URM buildings were generally built before modern earthquake resistant building codes, and these recent earthquakes demonstrated how much of a concern URMs are.   DPD and the Office of Emergency Management have already completed a study of the number of buildings in Seattle and developed an understanding of the risk that we face and what we need to do in order to reduce that risk.

The good news is that URMs are a relatively small part of our building stock.  The bad news is that retrofits are generally expensive, and that these buildings are older and relatively modest in size, so making improvements could be difficult for building owners.  If the City simply adopted a regulation requiring these buildings to be retrofitted, this is likely to be financially unaffordable for many owners, and they would either close the buildings or tear them down.  Many of these buildings are elegant and historically significant structures with many years of expected life.  Even with the recovery gathering steam, this is not a great time to tell building owners to spend large sums of money that will have little immediate payback.

That’s the dilemma we face.  On the one hand, we can keep gambling that the earthquake won’t hit – on the other hand, we could force serious economic consequences on the property owners and the City.  We need to find a way to connect these issues, to stop taking risks while making retrofits affordable.  That’s why the collection of business owners, property owners, residents, and interested individuals who were identified and invited by the City to participate in this process will discuss a variety of topics and provide recommendations and advice to the City for inclusion in the URM policy.  What we would like them to do is figure out a way that the City can support a retrofit process in a way that is affordable to property owners, by figuring out how to lower costs, stretch out requirements over time, or provide incentives that will help property owners make this happen.

It’s not an easy assignment, and there are no readily available answers.  But we must take action, and I am looking forward to receiving their report, to be completed by the fall of 2012. Legislation implementing a URM retrofit program is anticipated to be submitted to the City Council in early 2013.