The searchable map at the city's mandatory soft-story retrofit website: https://sfdbi.org/soft-story-properties-list

Yesterday, Mission Local published a special report on a pervasive problem among the city’s thousands of mandatory soft-story seismic retrofits. 

Building department officials have admitted that the encasing of aging gas lines in new, mandated concrete foundations could lead to “catastrophic” failures and fires in the event of a major earthquake. 

This matter was discussed in a public meeting in 2017, during which Department of Building Inspection brass stated that this situation “could become a San Bruno,” referencing the lethal 2010 PG&E gas explosion in that neighboring city. 

Seismic safety and fire safety is not an either-or. But sources both within the Department of Building Inspection and outside of it worry that the steps San Francisco took in its mandatory soft-story retrofit program has balanced the former against the latter. 

Separate and apart from the gas-line issue, the region’s structural engineers have long held misgivings about the integrity of the retrofitting jobs thousands of San Francisco property owners have been required to undertake since the passage of the 2013 soft-story ordinance. 

Members of the region’s structural engineers’ association said they spent years attempting to land a meeting with Department of Building Inspection officials regarding concerns about poor engineering practices and sloppy construction on mandatory retrofits built on relatively tight deadlines. 

These entreaties to meet were, for years, brushed off. And, when the two sides did gather in 2018 and 2019, the engineers say their concerns were, by and large, brushed off. 

All the while, thousands of mandatory soft-story retrofits were being undertaken and completed. As of April 2021, of the 4,934 mandatory construction projects, nearly 4,000 have been finished. 

The city’s Department of Building Inspection, says veteran structural engineer David Bonowitz, “does not seem to have any interest in revealing how things went for this program.”

A notice of violation from the Soft Story Retrofit Program was in 2019 posted at 680 Valencia St after owners missed the Sept. 15 deadline to comply with the program. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

Bonowitz, along with fellow members of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California (SEAONC) in 2016 began attending building department  subcommittee meetings and voicing concerns. 

“I was at those meetings back in the day, and the answer was always, ‘We got it. It’s good,’” recalled structural engineer and SEAONC member Randy Collins. 

“We had examples of pretty bad projects, pretty bad engineering and retrofit designs, and these got permitted, got built and got signed-off on. We were merely trying to press the building department on what were their quality assurance/quality control procedures? We kept asking, specifically, what’s the plan? They never really provided one.”  

Every engineer seemed to have his or her own disturbing experiences with the general quality of the thousands of mandatory retrofits.  

Thor Matteson’s suspicions about the program were always there, in the abstract. But then the structural engineer’s own involvement on a city retrofit pushed his doubts into the concrete. 

Yes, literally. 

On a project that Matteson had designed, a city building inspector departed shortly before Matteson’s assistant engineer arrived. The inspector, Matteson says, had signed off on the reinforcing of the project’s concrete foundation. But here’s the rub: The rebar that was supposed to be reinforcing that foundation was still piled in the driveway, where it had been unloaded off the truck.

If it’s not 100 percent clear: You’re supposed to sign off on a rebar inspection after the rebar has been installed. You’re also supposed to write a movie review after you see a movie or grade a test after a student fills it out. 

Inspecting rebar, it turns out, may not have been the Department of Building Inspection’s No. 1 priority. One building inspector recalls a supervisor walking up to his desk and asking him to attend a holiday work gathering to mingle with the builders and developers whose projects he’d be inspecting. When the inspector demurred, saying he had soft-story rebar inspections to do, the supervisor leaned into his cubicle and said, in a stage whisper: “rebar, shmeebar.” 

“After the first wave of mandatory retrofits was done, the engineers began trading war stories. Things we saw. And, usually in situations like that, people don’t tell stories about how great everything is,” said Bonowitz. “You tell about all the crap you saw. And as these stories keep coming in, you wonder if the Department of Building Inspection is doing anything about it?” 

Typical war stories beyond the rebar-shmeebar variety involved on-the-cheap fellow engineers making plans for buildings by looking at them on Google Street View instead of visiting them. Or submitting plans one-third to one-quarter as complete as normal — forcing contractors, who may or may not be qualified even with the best of plans, into improvisational construction. 

Disturbingly, in the engineers’ documented examples, these projects passed DBI inspections and received Certificates of Final Completion. 

Some 2.5 years of engineers wheedling for a meeting finally came to fruition in December 2018 and April 2019. “By the time we even got the meeting,” says Matteson of the 2019 gathering, “it was almost too late.” 

And, based upon several strongly worded formal letters and a flurry of follow-up emails, these do not appear to have been fruitful sessions. 

A severely damaged Marina District structure, 1989. MarPhoto courtesy of C. E. Meyer, United States Geological Survey.

“SEAONC members continue to report instances of faulty design and construction on soft story projects in San Francisco,” wrote then-president Tim Hart in a letter to building department leaders following the April 2019 meeting. “For reasons that we have discussed previously, we still feel strongly that DBI can and must take action to improve quality assurance for the benefit of building owners, DBI’s own reputation, and the City’s retrofit programs generally.”

Inspection data provided by the building department was vague and incomplete, the engineers complained. 

“It does not address the specific construction issues that our members have identified as having quality control problems,” reads Hart’s 2019 letter. “The data also does not identify the issues that DBI inspectors found during their spot check process or how those issues were resolved. Finally, the data does not include any projects that were inspected prior to 2018.”

Then-chief building inspector Patrick O’Riordan’s request of the engineers to provide specific addresses clearly didn’t encompass the engineers’ graver concerns about systemic problems. 

Engineers’ offers to “ride along” with inspectors — or perhaps review the work on their own — were received coldly. “Nowhere in the code is there an allowance for inspecting the same work again, when it’s been approved once already,” O’Riordan stated in a May 2019 email. “Please keep in mind building inspections are scheduled by the stakeholder, and are not generally set up by the Senior Building Inspector.”

Writing via a spokesman, O’Riordan this week characterized the meetings to Mission Local as “productive,” citing an expanded commitment for senior inspectors to “spot check” soft-story projects. 

SEAONC members, however, countered that “spot-checking” was not something they asked for nor felt was adequate. Claims of increased inspections did not assuage the engineers, as inconsistent or faulty inspections were one of their primary concerns.   

“I also want to note that DBI’s first priority is public safety,” read the April, 2021, statement from O’Riordan. “In that meeting, SEAONC representatives said they knew of properties that were not in compliance with soft-story requirements. At that time and in subsequent conversations, we requested those property addresses so we can investigate.”

Engineers countered that it’s not their job to report cases to the building department — or, if it comes to that, to police the building department. 

“We gave information as examples to show the need for a more systematic review,” explains Bonowitz. What’s more, confidentiality agreements with clients generally prevent engineers from informing on them. 

Regarding O’Riordan’s response, Bonowitz writes, “With respect to the issue at hand — how to quantify the actual quality program-wide — this is a bullshit answer.” 

“I regret we didn’t anticipate a program like this would draw more bad actors.”

Structural engineer David Bonowitz

The structural engineers’ association helped develop the mandatory soft-story program. And, in retrospect, Bonowitz says not enough thought was put into ensuring corner-cutting and dishonesty didn’t taint the undertaking. 

The foisting of costly, mandatory construction work onto thousands of unenthusiastic property owners led to “conditions that are perfect for owners to hire the cheapest bid they can get, and contractors and even engineers to say, ‘I can do this,’” he says.

“As developers of the program, I don’t think we thought through enough at the beginning the nature of quality control. I regret we didn’t anticipate a program like this would draw more bad actors.”

As it is, engineers are left to wonder just what would be uncovered if 10, 20, 50, or however many projects were randomly subjected to post-facto quality control. How closely does the actual situation on the ground resemble the building department’s documented inspections? How safe are these buildings? 

That remains unknown — and, for now, unknowable. 

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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30 Comments

  1. Not that I put any confidence in SF DBI (I don’t) but I will say that current engineering standards are WAY over-engineered. I’m sure most of these buildings will be fine!

      1. It really doesn’t matter whether retrofits are over-engineered. It is far too easy for a bad contractor to build something that has a fatal point of failure, and only careful inspection can avoid such oversights.

      2. HAH. I called Dennis Herrera on September 20, 2018 after a friend texted “well, your problems could be worse… This guy could be your engineer.” https://www.sfcityattorney.org/2018/09/20/herrera-uncovers-web-of-permit-fraud-by-santos-urrutia/

        Don’t
        Make
        Me
        Laugh

        …that IS our engineer. Now, anyway, after we were pressured to let the one we’d selected go, saying he was so backlogged with soft story retrofit work. (DBI, perhaps you should have staggered due dates by district?). Pressured to hire them, and they were *still* late in submitting plans and getting approvals, resulting in a Directors Hearing and Order of Abatement, two things they’d promised to keep us from. The fines are hefty, too. We hadn’t yet lived there but a couple of months. Welcome to San Francisco.

        @Thor, you’d spend an hour at our place before taking back that first remark, but, then, never was I aware “structural ivy” was a thing.

    1. But isn’t SF burning? Someone seems hellbent on lighting ours ablaze, anyway.

      I was issued an NOV to remove every single way out save for the front door. I can’t cite the fire code; only common sense, and fuck that. While out of town, my spouse was bullied badly enough into doing so.
      And of course this resulted in one of our pets taking an unplanned 25′ fall right away.
      And of course the NOV remains open in DBI’s system; same as if we’d done nada.

      If someone messed up my deli sammich order this badly, I’d be mad. My family and home; absolutely no words… We silently dragged out every empty box and began with our essentials, then our favorite belongings, then whatever else would fit, and drove 600 miles to an entirely different world where this insanity is unheard of.

  2. Plan checkers not checking, inspectors not inspecting, graft and corruption rampant. Yeah, it’s a normal City department. The problem is that even shining a light on the issues, as Joe has done, doesn’t send the cockroaches scurrying for cover. That’s because the whole City government is rife with corruption, so it’s all mutually assured destruction, from the top down. Nobody points out anyone else’s dirty laundry for fear that their own dirty laundry will be exposed. So the incompetent gravy train moves along and everybody keeps everyone else’s dirty little secrets. The losers in the end are, of course, the residents of the City who pay huge taxes and fees for the “privilege” of living in what should be a world class city, but has devolved into a corrupt hell hole.

    Thank you Joe, for your attempts to shine the light on these cockroaches.

  3. Seriously, WTF?!
    What type of Building Inspection Supervisor tells an inspector to ignore soft story rebar inspections?!
    A SUPERVISOR!
    Who is this supervisor and does he/she still still hold a job there?!
    As many have been pointing out, the entire management of DBI is not only corrupt and incompetent, this is SERIOUS dereliction of duty and malfeasance.
    Time to quit letting these ass clowns slip away into early retirement – where is the equally useless City Attorney?
    I’ll tell you – spending his days protecting these bad individuals, throughout the city.
    It’s no surprise it takes the FBI to sort these things out…

  4. Thanks Joe, excellent reporting. After reading this article and yesterday’s article about the natural gas lines, I just became a first-time donor.

  5. I wonder what the perspective of a property owner is after reading these articles?
    Do I call an attorney or do I call a contractor, PG&E or whom? Certainly not DBI…
    I just passed on my allowable “pass through” of my costs to my tenants? Now I can’t say the property is safer than before!
    I need a good property rights attorney!

    1. Good luck getting the rent board to approve any pass throughs. And any protected tenant – it’s amazing how many disabilities people have in the city! – can default win an exemption to pass through petitions by claiming financial burden.

    2. @Alfred, reaction was: *don’t hold my beer; I’ll need that!* / Sigh of relief that WE are not the insane ones. / Some folks at DBI are nice folks just wanting to get shit done, including some mentioned… appreciate all the time they set aside for me. Based on what I’d heard within the halls, I was more scared of Planning’s insane guidelines (now more lax, I’ve heard) where my plans have sat awaiting review for three years. Another fun article to do would be on the B.S. that is the Board of Appeals; NIMBYism at its finest. Those DBI folks have to go preside over that circus weekly, which results in absolutely nothing but delaying a project for a few months — there are few if any subject matter experts making the judgments, which can’t be upheld anyway. (Bonus points for anyone who can recall the date of Planning Dept guy vs DBI… That one is a gem, and they’re all televised and archived).

      Just wish they could have sent my engineer packing (HOW IS HE STILL ABLE TO RENEW HIS LICENSE AND OPEN A NEW ENGINEERING FIRM, CALIFORNIA?! Same for his son. And why’s he still performing transactions for my house in his new firm’s name? I flat-out denied him the right to do so) after his tardiness turned ridiculous / neighbor issues weren’t helping — and send their own DBI engineering/subcontraced staff in to fix said problem… Bill my engineer for his tardiness, bill my neighbor for being a psychopathic spoke in the wheel; hell, bill me and I’ll sue them both, but don’t leave us to live in a dangerous shack on a cliff with a long ways to fall straight down for years. / Well, we may be a bit insane for flat-out walking away from our home and most belongings without care or notice but we left it in the most capable hands possible. / Looking forward to a new entirely different really-small-town lifestyle… for now. If it doesn’t work out, nothing’s permanent. / If I did a good job selling the city/my house, get at me!

  6. How many people crushed to death or blown up in gas explosion are necessary in order for people to do their jobs with a conscience? Or even do them at all? Sounds to me like a lot of people could have blood on their hands when the next big one shows up.

  7. In my experience, DBI often defers much of the actual inspecting to the contracted special inspectors that are required for almost all seismic work.

  8. Sad that we’re not getting better oversight from the Building Inspection Commission. What are they doing?

    1. What is needed at the BIC is a professional manager or managers to oversee the DBI, not a group of unqualified political appointees who don’t even get paid for their work. As Rudy Nothenberg, the S.F. City Administrator in 1994, warned at the time, passage of the Charter Amendment that established DBI would place the Building Dept. in the hands of special interests, and his prediction has proven to be correct. (S.F. Chron., 7/17/00) The voters, however, were duped into approving this self-serving Amendment by two of the City’s greatest opportunists, Joe O’Donaghue, former head of the Residential Builders Association (RBA), and Randy Shaw, longtime Tenderloin housing advocate.

      As it worked out, the only people who would want these non-paying jobs are ones who see it as a way to benefit themselves or their constituents. Who among us would want to devote hours and hours of their time each month to the arcane matters of building inspection and its management, without any compensation? (Granted, some are also well-meaning, but good intentions can only take one so far.) And the Charter Amendment limits the choices for these positions even further: “The four mayoral appointments shall be comprised of a structural engineer, a licensed architect, a residential builder, and a representative of a community-based non-profit housing development corporation. The three Supervisorial appointments shall be comprised of a residential tenant, a residential landlord, and a member of the general public. The members of the commission shall serve without compensation.”

      https://codelibrary.amlegal.com/codes/san_francisco/latest/sf_charter/0-0-0-4148#JD_D3.750-1

      Typically, almost none of these representatives are familiar with the Building Codes, and none has any experience overseeing a Building Dept. or any other large organization. If they did, they wouldn’t be spending their valuable time with the BIC.

      What they do bring to the table is a personal and/or constituent-based wish list, whether that means personal access to DBI staff and services (e.g. Rodrigo Santos, Mel Murphy), DBI programs that benefit their constituents, the hiring of people like themselves at DBI, their own political agenda, or public exposure for themselves.

      Unfortunately, the only way to clean up this mess now is to go back to the voters with a new, significantly changed Charter Amendment. (Under the current system, even a proven outsider in the Director’s position will have a steep, uphill battle fighting the entrenched special interests.) And maybe someday in the hopefully not-too-distant future we can look forward to a professional, competent, and well-respected DBI.

  9. For a seismic-retrofit project, all structural work should be subject to special inspection or structural observation as provided in the Building Code (Chapter 17), and should be so indicated by the plan reviewer before permits are issued.

    The issues of workmanship and quality control identified by the engineers quoted in this article should have been addressed by the respective projects’ participants: the contractor, the subcontractors, vendors and suppliers, the project manager, the property owner, the architect of record, the engineer of record and the special inspectors.

    It’s not reasonable to expect a district building inspector, who typically visits six to eight jobsites per day, to demonstrate a greater standard of care than the Engineer of Record for a seismic retrofit project.

    If workmanship and quality control continue to be sources of problems on these types of projects, then Engineers of Record must be prepared to take a more active role during the construction phase, and must be prepared to manage the legal liabilities that come with spending more time on site.

    1. @Forward Observer,
      You’d THINK it makes sense to leave much of the construction oversight to the Owner and their respective consultants and contractors. If you re-read the article, the engineers who were interviewed tried repeatedly to get DBI to set minimum requirements for retrofit plans (one of those being that the engineer of record actually visit the project site before embarking on the design).

      One of the problems noted in the article was ‘bottom-feeder’ designers coming in from outside the Bay Area. If DBI had a checklist to follow (maybe including a requirement to locate the gas service, who knows) that would have helped their plan-check staff catch potential errors or oversights.

      I don’t recall reading in the article that the DBI inspectors were expected to demonstrate a GREATER standard of care than the engineer of record. My assistant is the one mentioned in the article who arrived at a jobsite where the City inspector had just approved a rebar inspection, when the rebar was still in a heap in the driveway. I don’t expect a *greater* standard of care. But if the City inspectors just rubber-stamp paperwork, why the hell are owners paying for “inspections”?

      Yes, third-party special inspection is required. Unfortunately I have seen cases where the special inspectors missed blatant defects, some of which were visible from across the street.

      Your last paragraph seems to suggest that it’s fine to let the City continue their current practices, and hope that someone else will catch any problems. If a building collapse and kills people, winning a judgment against a shoddy engineer or contractor won’t restore those lives.

      Speaking unofficially as an individual member: the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California is concerned with public safety, and we have done our best to ensure success of the soft-story retrofit program. Upon seeing gaps in the system we tried to address those–repeatedly. Only the City has the authority to implement some of the quality assurance measures that we suggested.

      1. Thor I think you are being a little too generous about the quality of the special inspectors. In my experience, there are bottom feeders in that world too who haven’t been much better than DBI. Ultimately, it is DBI’s role to set and enforce basic standards of quality – private parties can help meet those standards but are unlikely to be able to hold themselves to it.

  10. “Engineers countered that it’s not their job to report cases to the building department — or, if it comes to that, to police the building department.”

    I’m pretty sure engineers have a code of ethics, and I’m pretty sure that would make it their job to report dangerous and faulty construction that they’re aware of.

    Of course they know where their salary comes from, and they figure they won’t get hired again if they blow the whistle on their employers, or refuse to sign off on shoddy work. I suppose you can have some sympathy for them. But I won’t let them off the hook. It’s like a doctor who cuts corners, puts people in danger, and then justifies himself by saying “well, nobody stopped me!”

    1. Alai, I’m trying to understand your analogy.

      You said, “But I won’t let them off the hook. It’s like a doctor who cuts corners, puts people in danger, and then justifies himself by saying “well, nobody stopped me!”

      In this case the “doctor” seems to be DBI, and the Engineers Assoc. seems to be TRYING to stop the doctor, but the doctor is ignoring them. Correct?

  11. @Alai, I’m familiar with the situation that led to the “policing the building department” remark, which might have been unclear in the article–and there may have been no ethical requirement to notify DBI.

    An engineer could work completely within ethical codes and never tell DBI of a construction defect–as long as the defect gets *fixed*. This happens frequently when problems are discovered during construction; the Contractor is notified and makes corrections–or faces the Owner withholding payment.

    Interestingly, state law does not require engineers to notify anyone about safety hazards they discover. This issue is approached from the opposite direction: the law says an engineer cannot be punished if they DO report a hazard.

    1. 2019 California Building Code:

      1704.6 Structural Observations

      Where required by the provisions of Section 1704.6.1, 1704.6.2 or 1704.6.3, the owner or the owner’s authorized agent shall employ a registered design professional to perform structural observations. Structural observation does not include or waive the responsibility for the inspections in Section 110 or the special inspections in Section 1705 or other sections of this code.

      Prior to the commencement of observations, the structural observer shall submit to the building official a written statement identifying the frequency and extent of structural observations.

      At the conclusion of the work included in the permit, the structural observer shall submit to the building official a written statement that the site visits have been made and identify any reported deficiencies that, to the best of the structural observer’s knowledge, have not been resolved.

      1. To ‘Quit Sniveling’, What does the above quote from the 2019 Building Code have to do with Mr. Matteson’s comment? Are you suggesting that “structrural observation” should catch all errors, so the Building Inspector doesn’t have to? This would be an odd assertion, given that the section you quote says “Structural observation does not include or waive the responsibility for the inspections in Section 110”, where Section 110 covers inspections by the City.

        1. Cecil: The third paragraph has everything to do Mr. Mattesons comments, structural observers are REQUIRED to report deficiencies to the building official, I did not infer that building inspectors be absolved from performing their official duties. The story mentions “faulty design and construction…” however, specifics of said construction are left out of the article so laymen can only make uneducated guesses about what actually happened. I don’t think anyone would condone a building inspector in dereliction of their duties such as signing off on rebar not installed, I certainly don’t. Perhaps there is more to the story? Us dear readers have not been given specific details so we’re left to our own devices, there’s two sides to every story, unfortunately we’ve only been given one.

  12. Good article Joe, as usual, and thanks for keeping the spotlight on the mess at DBI. That said, it’s not clear what then Chief Building Inspector O’Riordan meant when he stated in his May, 2019 email to SEAONC that, “Nowhere in the code is there an allowance for inspecting the same work again, when it’s been approved once already,……” (This could be because his words were taken out of context.) Was O’Riordan referring to additional inspections done before the work is covered up or to additional inspections by SEAONC of already completed and approved work? If it’s the latter, then he is correct, and it may take a lawsuit by SEAONC to get anywhere with their complaints. That lawsuit could be directed at the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors. However, it should be kept in mind that the Building Dept. is exempt by law from liability for approving any non-code compliant work.

    If, though, O’Riordan was referring to work not already covered up, then he is wrong when it comes to structural work. The CA Building Code Sections 1704 and 1705 and S.F. Bldg. Code Administrative Bulletin, AB-0046, have very detailed requirements for Special Inspections and Structural Observation Procedures. These further requirements are “in addition to the regular inspections conducted by Dept of Building Inspection building inspectors and by the engineer or architect of record.” So, it’s hard to believe that the Chief Building Inspector would not be aware of them. Soft-story seismic retrofits are not exempt from those same requirements, too.

    https://up.codes/viewer/california/ibc-2018/chapter/17/special-inspections-and-tests#1704
    https://sfdbi.org/sites/default/files/ftp/uploadedfiles/dbi/downloads/AB-046.pdf

    Unfortunately, those Code sections and O’Riordan’s remarks do not also address the issue of faulty design, which the SEAONC engineers also questioned, and whether there is adequate supervision and quality control for plan checking at DBI. This, too, might require a lawsuit.

    Furthermore, enforcement of the special inspection and structural observation requirements have been problematic, at best, for many years at DBI. And those problems have existed within the department, in addition to problems with agents who represent the Applicants. Some examples have already been reported by you. Also, non-compliance can be a matter of ignorance, incompetence, haste, saving money, or deliberate law avoidance, and sometimes a combination of these. There have been forged documents and dishonest reporting. There has been debate within DBI about whether the signed Special Inspection and Structural Observation reports should be allowed to be submitted online or whether wet-signed, hard copies (the engineers’ standard) should be required. At one point there was a backlog of hundreds of these unsigned reports. And management has treated the reports at times like an unwanted stepchild.

    Anyway, many thanks again to you Joe, for bringing the mess at DBI to the public’s attention.

  13. WAIT! So how does a SF resident know if her apt. building was retrofitted safely? OR what does an apartment hunter need to look for / questions to ask to make sure they are not about to lease or buy a home with hidden gas line hazard?

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