Complying with City Seismic Ordinances

It’s Bigger Than Your Building

Seismic Retrofit Historic Building 140 New Montgomery

By investing in your building, you are actually investing in something much greater—you are investing in the lives and resiliency of your community at large.


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Contact: Dan Bech, Principal

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If you have received a seismic ordinance notice, it means that your local building authority has identified your building as potentially vulnerable during a seismic event (and less likely to withstand even a moderate earthquake). Seismic retrofit ordinances target particular building types that have a higher risk of collapse, and loss of life, due to known structural vulnerabilities and/or deficiencies. Historic earthquakes often provide valuable evidence of these structural vulnerabilities, which are often associated with the use of building codes that pre-date modern seismic design requirements. These ordinances often mandate some level of strengthening. Unfortunately, the wording of an ordinance can leave owners confused about what it means for their building specifically- with respect to cost and process. That’s where we come in.

Holmes Structures brings a working knowledge of seismic ordinances throughout California and can advise building owners on how these ordinances affect them. We are convinced that a seismic ordinance is an opportunity to protect your building, your tenants and your community when the next earthquake occurs. Our goals are aligned with yours, your local Building Department, and your community in reducing loss imposed by the effects of an earthquake.

Prioritizing Life Safety 

The EPA estimates that on average, people spend 90% of their daily lives inside of buildings. The odds are stacked that you, your tenants, and everyone else in your densely populated area will probably be inside of or in close proximity to a building when the next Big One hits. This raises the question – is your building fit to perform safely during an earthquake while minimizing loss of life and personal injury? If you have received a seismic ordinance notice, the answer is not likely. In engineering terms, enhancing life safety for your building means improving the margin of safety against collapse and affording building occupants enough time to safely evacuate. Complying with a seismic ordinance reduces your building’s risk of collapse, which poses an imminent threat to preserving lives and preventing serious injury. When building owners and structural engineers partner on seismic ordinances, we not only fulfill our professional and civic duties–we potentially save lives.

Lowering Cost

Building repairs cost more after an earthquake than the cost associated with retrofit interventions prior to the earthquake. Building damage is not limited to damage of its structural components – damage to building services and non-structural elements is also likely, including windows and partitions, mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems, and more. After an earthquake, you are more likely to pay a premium to return your building to a functioning, operational state, provided the building can be economically repaired. Meanwhile, you are likely to lose tenant income. Loss of revenue can add up quickly.

Reducing Downtime

When a building is damaged by an earthquake, swift repairs are imperative to secure its future use and incoming revenue. Complying with seismic ordinances increases the likelihood that a building will be less damaged. As a result of having less structural damage, it is possible that the building may be returned to functional use (or limited use) in a shorter period of time than it would be without the retrofit. It is worth noting that after a significant natural disaster, it will be more difficult to procure and retain the services of contractors and other construction specialists. Similarly, city officials may be overrun with permit applications for post-earthquake repairs. Addressing the seismic ordinance in a timely manner is a smart investment.

Improving Community Resiliency, Building by Building

By strengthening your building, you are contributing to a more resilient city. Buildings house our homes, our workplaces, our hospitals and our government.  Our community is more resilient when these structures do not collapse, but resiliency goes beyond that. While seismic ordinances generally target collapse prevention objectives, they are not concerned with the operability or reparability of the building following a significant earthquake. You have the opportunity to do better for your building. In many instances it is possible to improve the seismic performance of a building beyond the minimum requirements of the seismic ordinance with modest additional investments. Holmes Structures can advise you on these enhanced seismic performance objectives.

A building’s structure is the skeleton that supports the systems that help it function, such as Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) systems. Non-structural components of a building, such as MEP, are not required to be addressed by seismic ordinances. When a large portion of a city’s buildings are not repairable or are rendered unusable, the city’s residents and even entire industries at the heart of the local economy may be forced to relocate. The more quickly building owners comply with seismic ordinances, the more likely that, piece by piece and building by building, a city will retain its people, character and capital in the face of the next natural disaster.

Recent Seismic Ordinances in California


  • West Hollywood Ordinance #17-1004
    Implemented: 2018
    Required Completion: 2038
  • Mandatory strengthening provisions apply to all non-ductile concrete buildings constructed before the 1979 Uniform Building Code, as well as pre-Northridge steel moment frame buildings. Additional buildings have been classified as ‘Undetermined’ by the City and may fall under the Ordinance.


  • Santa Monica Ordinance #2537
    Implemented: 2017
    Required Completion: 2020 – 2037 (depending on building type)
    All pre-Northridge moment frame buildings (constructed prior to January 1996) and all non-ductile concrete buildings constructed prior to January 1977 must be evaluated and retrofitted to meet the required seismic performance objectives.


  • Los Angeles Non-Ductile Concrete Ordinance #183893 
    Implemented: 2015
    Required Completion: 2040
    Concrete buildings with a roof and/or floor supported by a concrete wall or concrete column, constructed before 1977 fall under the ordinance. The timeline stipulates enrolling in the program and either proving existing compliance through previous improvements or completing a retrofit over the next 25 years.


  • San Francisco Mandatory Soft-Story Program
    Implemented: 2013
    Required Completion: 2020
    SF Department of Building Inspection program to improve the safety and resilience of San Francisco’s housing stock through the retrofit of older, wood-framed, multi-family buildings with a soft-story condition.



The High Seismic States of Oregon, Washington and Utah

The States of Oregon, Washington and Utah also have high earthquake risks with a large number of vulnerable building types. These states and their municipalities are currently pending legislation to pass Seismic Ordinances, per the articles below.