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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.