Ask Us: How sound is our building as it relates to earthquakes

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I own a building with 4 other people here in San Francisco and we need to get good advice on how structurally sound our building is re: earthquakes. I want to be able to trust the opinion and not be concerned with getting an opinion skewed to make them money in the retrofit. I’m hoping you can suggest a few names/companies. Basically I’m looking for an inspection (willing to pay for it) like a contractors inspection, only exclusively as it relates to earthquake soundness and we would like a report with specific suggestions on how to move forward.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.



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10 thoughts on “Ask Us: How sound is our building as it relates to earthquakes

  1. Call any structural engineering firm which specializes in san francisco residential buildings. You can start with the phone book. (Sounds old school but it works.) In general, civil and structural engineers will give you sound, unbiased advice. Figure your assessment will cost between $00 for a very basic (verbal) assement to $2,000 for a detailed report.

  2. It is not quite clear what you are looking for, so I will answer a couple of different ways. If you are looking for an understanding of whether or not you have the typical measures in place (anchored building to foundation, water heater strapped, etc) then hire a good residential inspector/contractor. If you want to understand more, like whether the measures you have are good, then you need to hire a licensed structural engineer. From here on out, the costs can vary widely, but expect some investigation of structure by opening key walls, etc.

    If you want to go all the way and get an analysis of the building, execute on upgrade recommendations, and then go and get earthquake insurance, then you need a “Probable Maximum Loss” analysis in addition to the structural design analysis. This type of analysis looks at what type of damage is likely to occur in different types of earthquakes. This report then will help you understand insurance bids, deductions, etc. Depending on the amount of information you have about your building (as-built drawings, etc.) this may be the best for you. This is especially true if you share a larger building.

    My HOA had one of these studies performed for our approximately 40-unit building to understand what sort of risk we had in earthquakes and whether or not we should actually pay for insurance.

    We used Telesis Engineers, Berkeley, 510-528-8262.

    Fantastic report. They also came and presented to the association and really helped us make informed decisions. This will also help insurance companies bid on insurance – otherwise the bids will have no real relationship to actual risk – and you will surely overpay.

    We were referred to Telesis by:

    Tipping Mar & Associates

    1906 Shattuck Ave

    Berkeley, CA 94704

    (510) 549-1906

    Great engineers in their own right.

    A while back I also worked with:

    Paradigm Structural Engineers Inc

    450 Sansome St

    San Francisco, CA 94111

    (415) 362-8944

    I found them to be good as well.

  3. Clarification: Initial (basic) assesment from a licensed engineer would cost between $400 and $2,000.

  4. As a contractor, I agree with the above comments. Don’t bring in a contractor, I think that is what you were questioning. Hire an engineer, it seems to me for what you want they would fit the bill. There first response is going to be “what do you want to achieve, do you want to bolt your (hopefully reinforced concrete) footing, or do you want to spend more money and add shear walls and moment frames?”

    You should try to get a gauge on what you want to achieve before you bring them in. They won’t have an answer as to cost of the work, of course.

  5. unless you want to spend a lot of dough on a formal report, i suggest taking the most practical approach: hire a reputable structural engineer to come out and look at your building. you may be able to do this as a by the hour charge, and it will not cost you alot. instead of a formal report, just be there with him/her, and take notes on their comments. note- a written report may imply liability on their part, so getting the practical info verbally may be your most direct route. this will work best if there is good access to your ground floor/garage, and if the foundation is visible & accessable.

    with that info, you guys can do some inexpensive, basic things like bolt the building to the foundation, and perhaps add some sheerwalls where you have access, add garage door metal clips/bolts. the engineer may also have comments based on the height of your bldg, if it’s on a corner, soil quality for that general location, etc.

    you may have a situation where you do the above mentioned basic things, and you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck. adding things like moment frames, etc. are big bucks, and are very invasive upgrades. do the cheap, easy things. i doubt you’ll want to invest in an extensive structural upgrade unless you’re also gonna do a major remodel/addition, or your bldg is in such a precarious situation that you have no choice (which would suck.)

    good luck!

  6. Agree with AMinSF:

    We hired an engineering firm (reputable) to assess our property (brick foundation with two stories over the garage). We received a formal report and a bill for $3,000 (no drawings, sketches). We decided to add sheerwalls to the garage level for now and to replace the entire foundation when we convert part of the garage/basement into living space. The “walkabout” with the engineer is a great suggestion that can save you some money. Good luck!

  7. These are good recommendations, however, I would qualify Dede’s advice by saying I don’t know if you’d be well served by these companies in such a small building. What is good for a 40-unit building is going to be overkill for a 4-unit building, and the firms that work most efficiently for one of these buildings won’t be for the other. I say this as a former employee of a large-ish SE firm and now the proprietor of my own tiny engineering firm.

    I would recommend checking out SEAONC’s referral list @ [this link]and calling up a few SF firms that are listed under Single Family Homes and Multi Family Residential. Go with whoever seems to understand your needs best and can get out to visit in a reasonable time period. Expect an initial consultation fee and some kind of subsequent agreement to present a report based on your expectations.

    You’re probably only considering retrofitting the lowest level and thus an informal report would be closer to the $500-600 range.

  8. @ urban dweller

    I didn’t read your comment before posting, but $3000 seems quite high.

    I bill my time at $125/hour, which would mean I’d have to spend 24 hours evaluating and writing a report to get to that number…

    Even at twice my billing rate, a small firm should be able to informally (ie no drawings, garage level work) evaluate most 1-6 unit residential buildings for half that price. That’s why I suggest not trying to work with firms that deal with large projects unless you have one.

  9. Hey,

    I just wanted to thank everybody for their information and insights. The SEAONC list was especially helpful, thanks kaya


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