We are well into the so called “soft story retrofitting” season. Contractors, engineers and even City’s plan check are busy handling the hundreds of projects at hand. We are all learning how to make this very important task the smoothest and most economical process for everybody. Contractors are learning how to deal with the unforeseen, existing conditions, engineers are finding the most economical retrofitting methods, carefully choosing between steel moment frame design or cantilevered column application or plywood shear wall design, just to name a few different ways to get to the right and most economical solution. In many cases after the construction has started and existing conditions are revealed a total redesign is needed. On several job sites the existing, but hidden and now newly revealed conditions, were proven to be technically enough, that only additional structural calculations were needed for the City to exempt the building from costly retrofitting. Our office was successful in several of these situations.

And this is only the beginning. The City of Los Angeles has not even sent out all the “order to comply” notices to all the building landlords. Other cities like Santa Monica and West Hollywood have passed similar, and in some cases more extensive, retrofitting ordinances, with many other cities working on their own. Everything is working fine for a safer building environment in our communities. So what’s the problem?

During my countless visits to these buildings I noticed a paradox. The soft story conditions occur usually – but not always – in one end of the building where the parking is located. There are mostly two or maybe three units sitting on top of this area. The rest of the building – could be as big as 10-16-20 units or more – has no “soft story” condition. This ordinance mandates that this “soft story” condition in the back of the building be retrofitted because the building has 4 units or more. OK. I agree that the tenants of these 2 or 3 units over the parking area should be protected. So what is my problem?

My problem is that there are countless smaller buildings where a very similar situation occurs. There are 2 or 3 units over the same parking area creating a hazardous condition for the people living above, but this will not be corrected because the building has only 2 or 3 units all together, therefore not part of this ordinance. Why? Are these people second class citizens?

I strongly believe that this is a very good ordinance protecting a large part of the population living in dangerous buildings. But then why not include everybody regardless of the size of the building? And there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

When the City of Santa Monica introduced its ordinance, it included buildings with 3 units or more. Improvement over the City of Los Angeles 4 unit or more criteria, but not perfect. Until the City of West Hollywood came along with no limitation of limits. Any building with soft story condition regardless of the number of units has to be retrofitted. Kudos for the building officials of the City of West Hollywood.

I strongly urge the building officials in all cities to protect all tenants and basically all people – in case of a condominium project – living in these smaller but equally dangerous buildings and extend this very progressive and proactive ordinance to all similarly dangerous buildings regardless the number of units.

What do you think, am I right?

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