SDCI’s Newest Director’s Rule: Implications and Recommendations for URM Buildings

Seattle is closer to enacting its first URM building ordinance, and now is the perfect time to start planning to improve the seismic performance of these structures. As owners navigate the (sometimes daunting) process, we’ve assembled the Director’s Rule 101, as well as top recommendations for effectively reducing risk and enhancing seismic resilience.

Looking Ahead: Upcoming Requirements For URM Buildings

SDCI’s Director’s Rule 6-2023, “Alternate Method for the Seismic Improvement of Unreinforced Masonry Buildings (URMs),” took effect September 22, 2023. This allows for voluntary pre-compliance for URM building owners. A URM building ordinance based on this Director’s Rule could be approved as early as 2025 with between 10 and 13 years allowed for full compliance. The ordinance will apply to 1,142 Seattle buildings which are at high risk of ‘pancaking’ during seismic events and pose serious threats to occupants and passersby if not retrofitted.

The threat of earthquake damage to URM buildings is not new. San Francisco enacted its first ordinance 25 years ago and Portland began taking steps to address potential danger to its residents 15 years ago. Today, Seattle remains the only major West Coast city without a URM building ordinance.

Engineers at Coughlin Porter Lundeen have completed more than 40 retrofits of URM buildings, including many in downtown and Pioneer Square. Our deep knowledge and relationships help us prepare and support building owners to negotiate pre-compliance with the city, resulting in better communication and improved outcomes.

Understanding the New Policy

As a firm, our commitment to seismic code development and life safety standards spans decades. An extension of this commitment is communicating well with clients and partners. As codes evolve and policies change, we take seriously our responsibility to disseminate information and set our AEC peers and projects up for success.

We’ve developed a full understanding of the URM ordinance, built relationships with key players, and developed expertise within our own team. To help you understand the new policy and its effects, we’ve assembled these top points and recommendations for URM building owners.

The best choice is to evaluate a building now to understand which retrofitting options are possible, given the building’s particular design and site constraints.

Some URM buildings will qualify for an alternate method, commonly known as bolts plus. To be considered, structures must have 6 or fewer stories, not be a risk category IV building, nor have a “weak story” at ground level or other vertical irregularities. For these, engineers must still perform a seismic study of the individual design and site factors to determine eligibility. Street-facing buildings or those with an alley may not qualify as they often lack the required wall to pier ratio of 40% of total wall length. These must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

If a building qualifies for the alternate method, owners could then only retrofit the three most critical deficiencies: in- and out-of-plane wall anchorage, slender walls, and parapet bracing. For the owner, this would mean reduced construction costs and impacts on their spaces.

Retrofitting costs are dependent on factors such as unique construction and historic finishes so they can vary widely. Beginning seismic evaluation early produces multiple benefits, including the option to implement improvements in phases. Improvements are also less expensive and easier to make when a building is unoccupied. For example, commercial owners may save by planning work over multiple years as leases change and school districts may benefit by planning work during holiday or summer breaks.

Eventually, owners will need to meet minimum safety requirements to remove their building from the URM building list. This status could affect future choices for the owner, as a URM building designation may need to be disclosed for a sale or for insurance purposes.

Once the city’s process is finalized, URM buildings that have undergone substantial alterations after 2009 can be removed from the list without further modification if drawings satisfy city review requirements. URM buildings that have undergone substantial alterations between 1996 and 2009 may also be removed. These buildings need to undergo a seismic evaluation, the results of which will then be reviewed by the city. All other URM buildings require seismic evaluation by structural engineers and may require modifications.

Under the current Director’s Rule and subsequent city council resolution, URM building owners can improve seismic safety without necessarily triggering a substantial alteration. Complying with the Director’s Rule now means owners will not be required to do further URM work on their buildings, even if the ordinance is changed later.

Often the most important improvement to make is wall anchoring. URM buildings are heavy structures. They can be brittle due to age and construction material and have load-bearing walls that may fail under seismic stress. Wall anchoring can decrease the likelihood that floors will collapse. Another common choice is parapet and appendage bracing, which can decrease the likelihood of injuries or damage during an earthquake.

If a building is historical, choose engineers with historical renovation experience. They can propose options to improve seismic performance while also respecting the historical character of the building.

Coughlin Porter Lundeen is uniquely positioned to respond to owners’ questions and needs for various types of seismic evaluation, including the specialized considerations of URM renovations. Founding Principal Terry Lundeen and Principal Bryan Zagers both served on the policy and technical committees for the City of Seattle, which began addressing this problem in 2012. Terry and Bryan have been instrumental in developing the code requirements for retrofitting URM buildings, making in-depth and studied recommendations to encourage building owners to improve the life-safety of their URM buildings before the next large seismic event hits Seattle. Rebecca Hix Collins, Senior Structural Project Manager, has also served on national standards committees for ASCE 41 Seismic Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings and the ATC-140 Update of Seismic Evaluation and Retrofit of Existing Buildings Guidance. Terry, Bryan, and Rebecca all mentor younger engineers and encourage them to build their expertise through applied practice.

We encourage you to contact us if you have questions about the Director’s Rule or your URM building.

Successful URM Renovation Projects

Harold Poll Building
The Harold Poll Building is close to Pike Place Market, the Waterfront, and the Central Business District, offering creative office spaces with soaring ceiling heights, and is an example of successful voluntary pre-compliance. A third-generation investor in Seattle, Martin Smith Inc, is committed to improving seismic safety. They chose a seismic risk reduction option aligned with the city’s draft technical standard, and we guided them through the permitting process. Safety upgrades were completed when the top two floors were unoccupied, reducing seismic risk at a lower overall cost. We were excited to help them be the first to show formal compliance with the new Director’s Rule.

Project Team: Owner: Martin Smith Inc / Architect: Weaver Architects / GC: W.G. Clark Construction Company

Quilt Building
Quilt Building is a seven-story mixed-use residential building with a basement in Pioneer Square. Named after the Seattle Quilt Manufacturing Co. that operated out of it in the 1920s, it is now part of the city’s Pioneer Square Historic Preservation District. Our team performed seismic evaluations in 2019 to provide the new building owners with options for voluntary seismic upgrades. Trinity Real Estate chose to pre-comply with the technical provisions that SDCI had published that year. Renovations began in 2020 and were completed in late 2021. In 2022, the building won NAIOP’s Historic Renovation of the Year award.

Project Team: Owner: Trinity Real Estate / Architect: PUBLIC47 Architects / GC: Goudy Construction Company

Triangle Hotel
Another property being evaluated is the Triangle Hotel, home to the Triangle Tavern near the Stadium district, for Triangle Building LLC. Dating from 1910, Western Union Telegraph Co. kept offices there and the building is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Our engineers performed a seismic study based on the 2021 draft URM ordinance since the building will be renovated for a new boutique hotel and restaurant. While it is still under design, the owners now have options like parapet and out-of-plane bracing to make voluntary seismic upgrades alongside desired tenant improvements.

Project Team: Owner: Triangle Building LLC / Architect: BuildingWork

If the URM ordinance is adopted, it will be an exceptional step forward, thanks in part to a decade-long public-private partnership between the City of Seattle and structural engineers like Terry, Bryan, and Rebecca. However, its potential will only be realized when property owners also act. Owners who plan now for retrofitting their properties will not only reduce their risk, but also improve safety for their tenants and neighbors for years to come.