Monday, January 30, 2012

Salvation: Engineers and City Solve Seismic Woes

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

When I began working with the Baptist Church at 25th and Jefferson to find a solution to their seismic woes, the way forward was not entirely clear.  Our proposed HB58 was adamantly opposed by the Structural Engineers Association of Utah and area building inspectors.  The Legislature was interested in this issue but was sharply divided on which policy decision was best. 

Fortunately, despite our disagreements on HB58, we all could agree that we still needed to find a solution that worked for the Baptist Church.

The circumstances of the Baptist Church don't fit neatly into the box created by statute to deal with seismic upgrades.  Thus, my involvement to try to change the state statute.  Although my proposal was a principled approach, it was described as "trying to nail a wall tack with a sledge hammer."  Regardless, my ultimate goal was to provide some relief to my constituents.  This is why I am excited to see the SEAU and Ogden City step up to the challenge and craft a unique answer to this perplexing problem.

After reviewing the matter, the SEAU has agreed to provide pro bono services to the Church to allow for a seismic survey and determine what needs to be done to help upgrade the property.  This service is a significant savings to the church who would otherwise have been forced to fork out thousands of dollars for the review.  The best part is that Ogden City has agreed to issue a permit to have the roof completed without siesmic upgrades happening first.  In exchange, the Church will agree to put an "incremental" plan in place where they will agree to make upgrades as funding becomes available.

This solution gets to the rub of my argument at committe:  seismic upgrades are an economic issue.  If re-roofing forces people to make upgrades, it can bankrupt them due to the cost.  Rather than go bankrupt, people will neglect making repairs to the roof and risk damage to their building.  Essentially, the current law is an unfunded personal mandate.  However, providing for an incremental plan addresses the affordability problem.  It allows for upgrades to be made as funds become available to do so.  This is a win-win for all involved.

I would like to thank Steve Patrick at Ogden City, Chris Kimball with Kimball Engineering, and Barry Welliver with the SEAU for forging a way forward that is both palatable and common-sensed.  The Baptist Church and the community at large appreciate their efforts. 



  1. I agree that seismic upgrades are an economic issue. But what do you consider fatalities after an earthquake? What costs more, seismically retrofitting your building or having dead people after the earthquake? The law is not arbitrary. It's not there just to cause a burden on people. The LDS church has gone retrofitted many of their older building without trying to change any laws.

  2. Brad,

    If someone can't afford to retrofit their building, the discussion about safety is moot. The building is unsafe now, and will continue to be unsafe, and become LESS safe because statute prevents them from performing the most basic maintenance like replacing shingles.

    The LDS church has retrofitted most of their buildings (including my chapel which is closed for two years for upgrades). But, the LDS church can afford to do it and doing so under their own free will. They aren't being compelled to do so my the law.

  3. The LDS church decided what was important, and found it important enough to fund. Salt Lake School District has done the same thing and it took them 15 years to complete. They didn't have the funding to retrofit/rebuild all unsafe schools in a year but found it vital to do so and they created a plan and followed through.

    I am confused by the logic that if you can't afford to make your building safe, then you shouldn't have to. The additional costs are minimal if you are replacing a roof and its irresponsible not to do so. The same goes to bracing parapets, chimneys and other appendages. History of earthquakes show's that the majority of deaths occurs in unenforced masonry buildings and because laws have been lax in Utah we have a higher percentage of URM's than any other state with earthquakes.

    If its just new shingles they need, just add another layer.

  4. Jeremy,

    As has been shown in your post, there are alternatives to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Affording parapet retrofit during tough economic times is a very practical concern, however how will will ever improve our older building stock and its very vulnerable parts and pieces unless we draw some line in the sand and say that this is long enough.

    Buildings are designed under "new" building codes with a life span of 50 years. There is a purpose for this. The primary reasons are that codes change over time and normal maintenance will bring about opportune times to "update" buildings. Re-roofing is one such opportunity as they generally last 20 or so years and are significant capital improvements that property owners know they face.

    The parapet ordinance is one such reminder that if you put a significant investment to prolong the life of your building, you should also think about the fact that you've used up those 50 or so years of when it hasn't gone through an earthquake. I'm sure you know that predictions suggest that a major earthquake will occur along the Wasatch Front. The time interval is irrelevant since there is not precise measure. It's basically a gamble. A gamble that an earthquake won't occur during the two year window opened by HB 305.

    So I would argue that if the "law" has effectively helped unreinforced masonry buildings to become retrofitted for over seventeen years, and there exists a mechanism to obligate a building owner to improve seismic safety of the building at a time when those costs can be accommodated - why is there a rush now? Does this really serve the people of Utah or is it a loophole (for two years) for those that have buildings needing a new roof in the next short while.

    I appreciate your passion about serving your constituents, I'll forgive you for your short-sightedness on this issue. Your phone number is on my speed dial for a post earthquake call....


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