New California bill aims to create a public inventory of collapse-risk buildings

By David Jacobson and Ross Stein, Ph.D., Temblor

Check your hazard rank

The iconic Los Angeles International Airport Theme Building, built in 1961, and retrofitted in 2010 by Miyamoto International, was formerly an at-risk building should a a medium to large earthquake strike. It formerly housed a restaurant where the the Jetsons would have been at home sharing a meal. (Photo from: Miyamoto International)


A new bill was just introduced to the California Legislature aimed at requiring each city or county building department to create an inventory of seismically-vulnerable buildings. This bill, introduced by Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian of California’s 46th District, was inspired by the Seismic Resilience Initiative, a working group led by the United States Resiliency Council to promote policies and education related to the threats of earthquakes and to protect people and the communities they live in.


Contending with California’s earthquake risk

In 1989 and 1994 the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes each caused billions of dollars worth of damage. Assemblyman Nazarian told us that “Ever since the Northridge earthquake, I have been determined to make our communities safer. This new bill would allow local municipalities to proactively map all seismically vulnerable buildings, increasing awareness of buildings that should be seismically retrofitted.” Further highlighting California’s quake risk is that in 2008, the USGS published The ShakeOut Scenario, which forecasted what would happen in the event of a M=7.8 Southern San Andreas Fault earthquake. The estimated financial impact of this earthquake is $200 billion, with approximately 1,800 fatalities. Additionally, according to the USGS, there is a 99% chance of a M=6.7+ earthquake occurring in California in the next 30 years. Therefore, those behind the Seismic Resilience Initiative believe that the “best way to guard against that threat is to prepare for it – making our cities safer by identifying and retrofitting our vulnerable structures.”


A public inventory would bring market forces into play

There is great value in a public inventory of vulnerable buildings. If people learn that they live or work in a seismically unsafe structure, some will “vote with their feet,” and rent elsewhere, or pressure their companies to do so. To win back tenants, owners of deficient structures would need to upgrade. So, market forces, rather than mandatory ordinances, could drive retrofit. In addition, owners of collapse-risk structures may choose to retrofit to avoid the potential liability of exposing their tenants to a known hazard, just as they would if it were a mold or asbestos in the building. This is the power of public open data sets harnessed for the public good.

Mockup: This figure does not show the actual locations of buildings that have been or are required to be retrofitted under the San Francisco Mandatory Retrofit Program. Instead, this figure highlights how a public database of at risk structures could be used for greater public awareness.


Creating safer cities

According to Evan Reis, Executive Director and co-founder of the US Resiliency Council, there are four steps towards making a safer city: education, identification, evaluation, and mitigation. He told Temblor that the Seismic Resilience Initiative is focused on identification and evaluation because “in order for a city to take action, they have to understand the extent of the issue they face.” Jurisdictions “must know what their risk is in the event of a big earthquake, including how much housing and retail space they will lose.” This can only be done if all vulnerable buildings, such as soft-story structures and unreinforced masonry buildings, are identified.

San Francisco’s Pacific Telephone Building was identified as being at-risk in the event of an earthquake. Because of this, it underwent a significant seismic retrofit that was completed in 2013 by Holmes Culley. The retrofit not only made the building substantially safer, but preserved the building’s architectural integrity. (Photo from Henrik Kam Photography)


While the Seismic Resilience Initiative is focused on identification and mitigation, education is still part of process. By comprehensively identifying vulnerable structures, Reis hopes to dispel the “surprising number of misconceptions about how at risk people are.” He said that many people in California think that everyone has the same risk. But this could not be farther from the truth.


Identification vs. Mitigation

Some California cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Monica, have already taken a step towards protecting its residents from seismically at-risk buildings. In San Francisco, this took the form of a mandatory ‘soft-story’ retrofit program to apartments, while in Santa Monica, the nation’s most extensive retrofitting program was adopted last year. Reis said that while the bill doesn’t directly tackle mitigation, it is the ultimate goal. “I want to build momentum step-by-step because that is what it takes to get to mitigation. We need to give people information to make good decisions amongst themselves.”

Soft story buildings like this one in San Francisco are a type of building vulnerable to collapsing in an earthquake. This building, in San Francisco, has undergone a retrofit. (Photo by: CONSTANCE STAMAS/HOODLINE)


Another reason Reis gave as to why the bill isn’t focused on mitigation is because of the many California cities that have already created ordinances. He pointed out that those ordinances were made with specific jurisdictions and needs in mind. Nonetheless, he hopes that by publicly identifying vulnerable buildings, officials in each jurisdiction will take the proper steps towards creating a safer state. Furthermore, Assemblyman Nazarian believes there should be a greater emphasis on seismic safety because “For every dollar invested in proactive mitigation, we save four dollars in repair costs. With this in mind, I have been focused on incentivizing seismic retrofits through a revolving loan program, expanding PACE funding, expanding the California Earthquake Brace + Bolt grant program, and this year ensuring new buildings are strong enough to not only survive and protect life during an earthquake, but can remain habitable.”


Those in favor, say “aye.” Those opposed, say “nay”

While Reis hopes that people will get behind this bill, he knows that it will not be universal. “The pushback comes from those with a short-term mindset” he said. Therefore, the next six months are about promoting the Seismic Resilience Initiative and encouraging people that before the next large earthquake strikes California, we should have a public, open inventory of sub-standard or collapse-risk buildings as the prerequisite to long-term mitigation. Assemblyman Nazarian added that his hope for the bill is that “we raise awareness in local municipalities of seismically vulnerable buildings, our emergency planners have an understanding of at-risk buildings in their communities, and we can establish a funding mechanism statewide to retrofit these buildings; saving lives, protecting property, and creating jobs.”

If passed, the bill would be become law on January 1, 2019. Then, over a 5-6 year period, seismically-vulnerable buildings would be identified, and building owners would be notified. A public database would also be created where all buildings would be listed, and continually updated as they are retrofitted or replaced.


If you would like to find out more about the Seismic Resilience Initiative or the recently introduced bill, follow the links below.

Legislative Bill

Seismic Resilience Initiative

The Case for Earthquake Resilience: Why Safer Structures Protect and Promote Social and Economic Vitality



Seismic Resilience Initiative

United States Resiliency Council

California Legislative Information: AB-2681 Seismic safety: potentially vulnerable buildings

Personal communication with Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian and Evan Reis


Ali Sahabi, Evan Reis, and David Khorram, The Case for Earthquake Resilience: Why Safer Structures Protect and Promote Social and Economic Vitality, Feb. 23, 2018

American Society for Civil Engineers