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Will We See More Seismic Retrofitting in the Construction Industry?


Here in Portland, Ore., where Viewpoint headquarters is located, retrofitting buildings for earthquakes is a big topic of conversation — even if building owners aren’t yet scrambling to implement upgrades. If you don’t live on the West Coast, earthquakes probably aren’t exactly top of mind. But even if that’s the case, you’ve likely heard something about the impending “Big One” that The New Yorker reported on in 2015 which is expected to cause significant damage in the Pacific Northwest. Chances are it could occur in the next 50 years, and the region is largely unprepared.

As communities in the area grapple with how to get ready, discussions in Portland serve as a good example of the challenges of actually making upgrades. These discussions also lead to questions about the new seismic retrofitting industry in the region.

Earthquake Retrofit Requirements

Many cities in California have seismic retrofit requirements, but outside the state, retrofit mandates aren’t common. In Portland, we’ve seen many discussions about whether old buildings like schools and large apartment complexes need to be reinforced, and if so, how soon that should be completed. The city council has specifically explored the need to upgrade unreinforced masonry buildings, which are likely to sustain significant damage during an earthquake. The city council passed a resolution instructing staff to develop language for a seismic retrofit code for buildings like schools and hospitals, but no actual mandate exists yet.

It might sound obvious that cities should upgrade buildings that could cause harm during an earthquake, but the financial concerns associated with these upgrades present an obstacle. Apartment building owners, for example, have described their situation as being between a rock and a hard place. Retrofits are costly and often require those living in a building to stay elsewhere during the upgrades. Additionally, owners are likely to face pushback from residents if they raise rents to pay for these added costs.

The complexity of the situation means we’ve ended up in a place where a mandatory building retrofit code hasn’t materialized yet, and if one does, actual implementation deadlines for building owners could be a long way off.

The Seismic Retrofitting Industry

Even though seismic retrofitting in the Pacific Northwest isn’t yet mandatory, many upgrades are underway. Currently, building owners in Oregon and Washington must address seismic upgrades when older buildings undergo major remodeling. The upgrades themselves involve things like tying walls, floors and roofs together, as well as securing parapets to prevent debris from falling during an earthquake.

Individual homeowners have gotten involved in retrofitting, too. They’re bolting their homes to their foundations, installing automatic gas shut-offs, securing heavy furniture and more.

That being said, seismic upgrades likely make up a small portion of renovation projects in residential and commercial buildings across the region. It’s worth noting, though, that seismic retrofits will likely expand beyond buildings. For example, Portland is exploring ways to either replace or retrofit a bridge so it can withstand an earthquake.

Retrofitting for Contractors

So if the seismic retrofit industry is fairly new and no mandate for upgrades exists, what does this mean for contractors? Maybe nothing yet, but this topic certainly isn’t going away.

If seismic upgrades do become mandatory for certain types of structures, contractors involved in renovations will be expected to know what’s needed for compliance. And even if these upgrades don’t become mandatory anytime soon, knowing which upgrades can improve a building’s likelihood of survival in the event of an earthquake could allow contractors to offer more services to clients. Seismic retrofits may also open up a way for contractors to expand into new markets.

If contractors are interested in this type of work, it’s worth getting familiar with the industry now and keeping an eye on potential legislation that cities like Portland are currently debating. This is new territory for most people, and many other cities are watching to see what happens here with potential mandates. We’ll certainly be keeping an eye on how the situation progresses.

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