Sunday, October 30, 2011

Restoration-A Team Sport (Why Seismic Terror Threatens Buildings)

There is a discussion, on one of the professional historic preservation listservs, that asks the question “Is the Architect the most important person in a restoration?”  The answers, including my own, tend toward “that depends on the architect” with the general consensus being that a good architect is a valuable element of the team, but the wrong architect can ruin a historic building.  I’ve met both of those architects (My architect friends know that long ago I started to characterize architects as being either “trainable” or beyond redemption.  I don’t work with the latter more than once).

But it is another professional member of the team who can often be more critical to the success of a project, if only because they can either make or break it long before the rest of us even get to start thinking about it.  That would be the structural engineer, a position that has risen in importance in Oregon in direct proportion to the rise in concern over seismic activity and the so-called “Big One,” that we are now taught to call the Cascadia Event.

The general public (read building owners and, unfortunately, too many building officials) tend to get really nervous about the structural integrity of “old” structures that don’t meet current building codes.  (We won’t mention that the building you are sitting in right now, unless it was built last month, probably doesn’t meet current building code either).  Well-meaning people tend to think “non-code compliant” and “unsafe” are somehow synonyms.  They aren’t.

So, why am I writing this?  Well, engineer issues are always at the forefront of project planning and, since I have several projects in that phase, I’ve been dealing with engineers.  Good ones are creative, experienced, and flexible.  The opposite, not quite so much.  Whatever I think about architects beyond redemption, I think about the wrong engineers to an exponential degree.  They can kill a project, and they can do so entirely unnecessarily.  Other times (read school districts) public officials use seismic concerns (founded or not) as an excuse for what they really what to do (See the Medford School District and the demolition of both Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools a few years ago).

The building community, particularly in this poor economy, has a tendency to beat the drum of public safety related to unreinforced masonry buildings.  I don’t think that this entirely self-serving, but I also don’t buy that it’s the crisis it is sometimes made out to be.  You can retrofit most any building fairly economically to help assure that people will get out in the event of an “event” and, of course, any time you work on a building you should take the opportunity to improve its structural capacity.  But the reality is that you can only rarely save the building without incredible, unsupportable, expense.  And that is pretty much a good thing because it is the rare building (historic or otherwise) that really can justify that expense or merits saving.  Historic buildings are cool, no doubt.  But perhaps investing millions into them just to cover your hindquarters from a lawsuit isn’t the best use of capital. 

I was just involved with the planning for a police station, a building you probably want to survive an event, right?  The current, old, wood-frame, building had 1 in 158 probability of collapse during an earthquake.  Moving that use into another, significantly newer and more expensive building, would yield a probably of 1 in 31,600.  Pretty good odds.  But 1 in 158 isn’t all that terrible a starting point. And what NO engineer will ever actually tell you is that there is no such thing as an earthquake proof building.  That city, for considerably less money, will upgrade its existing facility and increase its survival by more than a factor of ten.  Better odds.  An economic study of the cost per life saved from 500 government mandated programs found that seismic upgrade to existing buildings was the single least cost-effective use of dollars.  Not much comfort, of course, if you are injured by a falling building, but perhaps from a policy standpoint those millions and millions of dollars would be better spent improving the safety of our cars and roads.  There is little doubt that it would save more lives.

Given the chance, one of my first recommendations to any client is to be sure they have all the right professionals in place; the architect, the contractor, and the engineer as early in the process as is possible so that each of us can communicate to each other.  It doesn’t always work, but it sure tends to work better than not.


  1. George,
    I'm not sure I follow your points here. "Seismic Terror" and--are you suggesting the threat of Cascadia is overstated? Do you not believe in the "so-called" Big One? Have you read the latest data out forth by world-renowned seismologists such as Chris Goldfinger, regarding Cascadia? As for engineers not saying that no building is ever quake-proof--that's simply not true. Few engineers would ever say a building can be made quake-proof, especially in light of what we saw in Japan last year. That said, thousands of Oregon school children are at risk in buildings that no engineer in their right mind would consider adequate to the staggering risks we face. There is considerable room for improvement because really, things couldn't be much worse for at least half of our state's public school buildings in this regard. Retrofitting school buildings is far from perfect, but for those of us with kids in these potential death traps, anything that helps keep the door frame standing a little longer is better than nothing.

    There is real and serious data on Cascadia. We ought not to be prepping for seismic uncertainty but instead for seismic certainty. AIA recently held a symposium called Seismic Certainty, and not a moment too soon. Panic and hysteria certainly doesn't help our state prepare for the great earthquake that is due. But underplaying the risks only invites disaster. Some 300,000 Oregon school children are in danger in their seriously seismically deficient buildings. Children have no choice but to be where they are and when the state mandates school, the state is obligated to provide minimum life safety for these children. The status quo is abysmal.

    Amanda Gersh
    Oregon Parents for Quake-Resistant Schools (OPQRS)

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Amanda.

    I don't doubt that the Cascadia event is real. I do doubt that we can realistically do much to impact its effect (see Japan, the most earthquake prepared country on the planet and how well there preparedness worked out). I don't mean to underplaying the risks, but rather recognize the realities and the cost effectiveness of the solutions that are being presented. NO, I am not suggesting that schools not be upgraded where possible. I am suggesting that major improvements can be made for far less than is often suggested and that school districts use "Seismic Paranoia" as the justification to either shutter or tear down otherwise serviceable buildings and unnecessarily replace them with buildings that won't perform all that much better than a renovated existing one.

    America is a funny place, where we will invest millions of dollars to solve the statistically rare but dramatic catastrophe while at the same time ignoring or disputing regularly spending modest amounts to make things better. Major seismic upgrade, like wholesale window replacement, is all too often the acceptable palliative for years and years of deferred investment and maintenance.

  3. Thanks for clarifying, George. I guess I just don't see the seismic paranoia as displayed by our school districts. In fact I suggest the opposite is true: PPS, for example, has underplayed the seismic hazards of our schools to the point where few parents/citizens perceive the dangers to be real or imminent or widespread and really aren't very concerned. Cascadia isn't "statistically rare" either; mainstream current data puts the risk of an M8 or M9 + as higher than 1 in 3 within 50 years for southern to central Oregon. That's for a subduction quake and tsunami--also known as a megaquake. Those risks are about as bad as it gets for seismic disaster globally. I'd far rather be a parent in Japan or in California as far as seismic risks and school safety go. When engineers like Kit Miyamoto are telling our state that we crazy to allow kids to attend school in these URMs--that tells me I as a parent should be very concerned. He's not an alarmist; he's a world-renowned seismic engineer who assesses these risks and realities all over the world.

    I wouldn't worry too much about school districts though. They haven't exactly sounded the seismic alarm. Far from it. Most parents have no clue what risks their kids face daily. I agree with you that we have to assess risk carefully and that there are many problems when it comes to the retrofit vs. rebuild arguments. But ignoring/underplaying the problem (which seems to be the status quo when it comes to the problem of our schools) doesn't make it go away. Quite the opposite.

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  5. Amanda,
    Clearly school districts are dealing with this differently in different parts of the state, as the Medford district, several years ago, tore down two fine, historic, buildings after erroneously making the case that they were structurally unsound as a way of shuttering them. When parents rose up in arms, the District elected to spend about 3x as much money to build entirely new schools on the same site. It was both a loss of history, and a waste of money.

    But this post wasn't really about schools, though I understand that they are important. It was about a certain level of structural paranoia that causes the wrong engineer to want to put enough steel and concrete into a building that it either kills the project or ruins its character. Property owners usually see the impact and either drop the project entirely or decide its easier to scrape the building and start over. Only rarely is that necessary. We can significantly improve the seismic performance of most buildings for reasonable costs. Unfortunately nervous engineers, concerned about liability, will often include 35-50% overbuilt fudge factors, simply to protect their own backsides. I don't like working with those engineers. That is what a "team" approach was getting at.

  6. In looking at two large Cascadia type earthquakes in the past year or so (Concepcion and Christ Church) the damage to new construction was pretty striking. The apartment tower that actually completely fell over in Chile was brand new and the tallest building in Christ Church (maybe from the 90's) was so damaged it had to be torn down. I don't feel tearing down old structures to build new "safe" buildings is a good idea on any level. Not only is it a misnomer in regards to public safety but it makes a city look just like everywhere else.

  7. George, I want to respond to one of your statements above. Concerning Japan, you write, "See Japan, the most earthquake-prepared country and how well their preparedness worked out." From a structural performance standpoint, their preparedness worked out quite well. Building performance in extended shaking and high PGA was good, there were few fatalities from structural failures anywhere in the country, and school were immediately in use as community shelters and information centers. Avoided casualties don't make news, but Northeast Japan's preparedness probably saved many thousands of lives.

    The tsunami was responsible for the mass disaster we witnessed. Northeast Japan had prepared well, but for the wrong event. Based on 1,000 years of documented history, they built appropriate defenses. But the analogous event occurred in 869 AD. Scientists were humbled, because they did not believe that section of the Japan Trench could produce an earthquake of that magnitude.

    There is a great deal to be learned, and applied here, from Japan's experience. But questioning the value of their preparedness because it "didn't work" is probably not one of the relevant lessons.

  8. Ted, thanks for the feedback. I was not suggesting that Japan's efforts in seismic design had failed, but rather that even those best efforts still left them vulnerable in others; that there is no "perfect" answer when dealing with the forces of nature. I find fault with the current focus on seismic design, often to the exclusion or detriment of everything else.

  9. I completely agree. Integrative solutions (and people capable of imagining and then implementing them!) are needed.