Building It Right the First Time

Improving the seismic performance of new buildings
SPUR Report
February 1, 2009

The year is 2029 and a major earthquake, of an intensity not seen since 1906, hits the Bay Area. Like any earthquake it comes without warning, striking suddenly while the people of San Francisco go about their daily routines in the city's offices, homes, schools and shops. Although the earthquake comes as a shock and surprise, it is not really unexpected. In fact, we had been warned by seismologists and engineers that, sooner or later, such an event was inevitable.

What happens when the quake strikes depends on how well the city has prepared in the previous twenty years. In one scenario, little preparation has been done: a few existing buildings were retrofitted by owners voluntarily and a few others through attrition as they were replaced by newer structures. The newer structures have better seismic performance than the older buildings, and very few of these buildings collapse and kill occupants. But many new structures are rendered unusable by the quake; some will not be back in service for months, and several are not economically repairable and must be demolished. The damage has cascading consequences for San Francisco. People are displaced from their homes, companies and residents are forced to move out of the area, small businesses fail, and reconstruction demands overwhelm the city's damaged infrastructure.

An alternative scenario, promoted by SPUR, relies on San Francisco taking action now to prepare for earthquakes and improve the seismic performance of buildings and infrastructure. This SPUR report makes four recommendations for how to make new buildings a part of the city's plan for resiliency during — and after — a major earthquake.

About the Authors: 

The SPUR Board of Directors reviewed, debated and adopted this report as official policy on November 19, 2008.

This report generously underwritten by Degenkolb Engineers


Before the Disaster Task Force Chair: Chris Poland

Primary authors: Chris Poland (Defining Resilience), David Bonowitz (Existing Buildings), Joe Maffei (New Buildings), Christopher Barkley (Lifelines)
Before the Disaster Task Force Members: Ross Asselstine Chris Barkley, David Bonowitz, Laurie Johnson, Joe Maffei, Jack Moehle, John Paxton, Robert Pekelnicky, Jes Penderson, Chris Poland, Laura Dwelley- Samant, Michael Theriault, Tom Tobin, Debra Walker, George Williams, Jessica Zenk

Resources: Kent Ferre, Laurence Kornfield, Hanson Tom

SPUR lead staff: Sarah Karlinsky

Image courtesy the U.S. Geological Survey