Not long ago, we published a question from one of our readers who was motivated to begin seismically retrofitting his home after seeing the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. We tried to assist by pointing him to three Web sites with information on seismic retrofitting.
He was looking for resources that would help him learn about the process, so he could make informed judgments about recommendations made by professionals. At least at this time, he was not looking for specific instructions on how he could retrofit his house.
As happens from time to time, one of our readers, Stephen Ferrero, a San Francisco civil engineer, took exception to our failure to go further and discuss the value of a licensed professional engineer in a seismic retrofitting project. Ferrero wrote:
“I read your article with great anticipation for the mention of engineers and engineering. But the article disappointed. Omitting the availability of the sound and cost-effective advice of civil and structural engineers borders on irresponsible.
“For the do-it-yourselfer, earthquake-proofing a home can be made a whole lot easier and less costly with the assistance of a licensed engineer. She or he would prescribe and prioritize just the right amount of bolts, plates, hangers, plywood and nails.
“In turn, this valuable information allows the owner to focus on what they know best — installation. Further, an engineer’s advice, in the form of drawings, will make a concrete record and enable a homeowner to easily obtain a building permit. Also, the permanent record of seismic improvements is valuable when selling (or buying) a home.
“To give a personal example, although a licensed engineer and a carpenter myself, before I improve my own home I call upon — and pay for — other engineers more seismically savvy than myself for their advice and design.
“It is unfortunately rarely discussed enough that the potential Big One will be 50 times more powerful than the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Thousands of turn-of-the-century buildings that withstood Loma Prieta are at risk of partial or full collapse.
“The lesson from Hurricane Katrina is that more engineering is needed, not less.”
We are in hearty agreement that no one should engage in a seismic retrofit without considering consulting a licensed structural engineer.
These professionals will design specifications for a specific building, suggesting improvements that are necessary and cost-effective.
Elements in refitting projects, such as bolts, plates and shear walls, work together to create a stronger structure that will hopefully withstand a large earthquake. Engineers will do the math and design modifications that give a structure the best chance of surviving the Big One.
We also agree that hiring a licensed engineer as a consultant can be cost-effective because it will provide a clear plan with a defined scope. It will make the permit and inspection process go smoother and will provide a blueprint for its successful completion.
That being said, we stand by our answer to our reader who was seeking only general information so that he might be an informed consumer who could intelligently discuss his project with the appropriate professionals.
The first step in any project is defining the scope. To do that, one has to become informed.