August Earthquake Highlights Urgent Need for Construction Retrofits

Lessons from the 6.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Napa, Calif., in August 2014 could affect building codes and regulations; contractors have a golden opportunity in retrofitting structures

Over 150 buildings in the city of Napa have been “red-flagged” as too dangerous to enter after the August 24, 2014 earthquake.
Over 150 buildings in the city of Napa have been “red-flagged” as too dangerous to enter after the August 24, 2014 earthquake.

On August 24, 2014, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake hit Napa, Calif. The recovery from the earthquake could have profound consequences for business owners and construction professionals. This disaster has been newsworthy not because of the severity of the quake but because of the surprising lack of earthquake-preparedness in a region as seismically active as this one.

Californians are famously blasé about their frequent earthquakes, and some even take it for granted that buildings in the state are all earthquake-safe. However, thequake that hit Napa on August 24 has proven otherwise and even revealed new information about how certain types of construction react to a quake of that power. Over 150 buildings in the city of Napa have been “red-flagged” as too dangerous to enter. Particularly at risk are concrete buildings without steel retrofits and older brick-and-mortar buildings.

In some ways, this quake has been an important test for Northern California. It’s the first large quake to hit Napa since the newest seismic building requirements were approved in 2006. While inspectors confirm that construction retrofits did save some buildings, it’s still too early to determine how effective the new requirements have really been. The lessons from this earthquake could have a ripple effect, altering building codes and regulations across the country in the future.

Construction professionals have a golden opportunity, as retrofit regulations will be updated and more rigidly enforced

The big question that construction professionals should bear in mind, is how to integrate historic retrofits into their business models.

Both private homes and public buildings will need retrofits and reinforcements, both to recover from this quake and to prepare for future calamities. The Napa quake revealed that many building owners had long missed the city’s deadline for retrofitting. The biggest obstacle to complying with the new guidelines? Building owners were reluctant to alter historic buildings, even to improve their safety and longevity.

While cost is a strong motivator for delaying construction retrofits, many building owners are more worried that the aesthetic of their historic buildings will be ruined by the required retrofits. Some even disagree with the notion that current seismic regulations are necessary for old buildings.

Despite their personal reluctance, there’s no doubt that pressure on these uncooperative building owners will increase after this quake; indeed, it already has. Building owners will have to cave to government pressure sooner or later, and they’ll be looking for contractors and construction teams that they can trust to respect these historic buildings while making them as safe as possible. One thing is certain: demand for construction retrofits of historic buildings is sure to continue to grow.

If your construction firm wants to be competitive for retrofit contracts, whether in California or anywhere in the nation, pay close attention to government regulations for safety. The lessons of the Napa Earthquake, both positive and negative, are sure to be incorporated into seismic regulations, and building codes all over America might see changes as a result.

These changes might mean that previously improved buildings will be looking for contractors to update their retrofits. Government buildings, such as schools and administrative buildings, might be updated under public pressure. If your company wants to take advantage of this potential windfall of construction work, make sure you’re well-informed about contract bonds and other certifications you’ll need to bid on these lucrative government projects.

Seismic retrofits are just one of the updates that historic buildings need, along with storm and sustainability retrofits. With the right planning and a long-term outlook, this can spell very good news for your construction firm.

Huelo Dunn is a regular contributor for the JW Surety Bonds blog. She follows the dynamics of the construction industry, and she is an expert in the field of contract surety bonds and contractor licensing.