It's Seattle's Fault

Article written by Marty Smith

Fault line that is. We are all quite aware that at some point, the “big one” is going to hit. When? Who knows. Might not be in our lifetime, but then again…

My father was a masonry contractor. His father was a mason, as was his father, and his father…I don’t know how far back it goes. All I know is that I have mortar running through my veins. I have heard about the ’49 quake and witnessed the ’65 quake, but these events did not hold a candle to the stories my father told me about the earthquake that hit South Central Alaska in 1964. That one measured 9.2, the largest in recorded North American history. 139 killed.

My dad talked about getting to various sites to inspect the damage. Entire blocks of masonry buildings leveled. Entire blocks of Anchorage gone. I remember him saying he could not fathom how so few were killed. Buildings pancaked. The roofs of 4 story buildings sitting on the street.

Seattle proper is now about 8 times bigger than Anchorage was in 1964. If we count the greater Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue areas, we are over 3.5 million residents. In 1964, the entire Anchorage region was about 100,000. When the big one hits here…well, you can do the math.

The good news is, construction and construction codes are far superior to what they were in 1964 with regards to seismic stability. However, many of the buildings we live in were built prior to 1964. This brings me to the subject of unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs).  I am not going to regurgitate the outstanding job the Seattle Times did on reporting about the danger of old brick buildings (see Seattle Times article: Buildings That Kill – May 14,2016). What I am going to do is talk about the practicality of an old brick building.

Most of the structures that appear to be brick in the area are actually wood structures with a brick veneer. In my 35+ years in the masonry trade, I have only actually inspected 2 true masonry houses. A true masonry structure is defined as a building whose floors and roof are supported by the masonry itself. It is that simple. There are, however, a considerable number of true masonry buildings in the area. The survey says over 800. Many of them are multiple family buildings.

I recently had the opportunity to inspect two URM apartment buildings in the same day. Without going into detail, I can tell you this: in the event of a big earthquake, as these buildings stand now, I would have virtually no chance of survival in one building, while in the other I would feel relatively safe. They were only about two blocks from each other. Neither had had any seismic upgrades. The one I felt less safe in had been repointed 100%. The one I felt safer in had been repointed 50%. It was just the way they were built.

I had been a masonry restoration contractor for quite some time when the Nisqually quake of 2001 hit. I am going to use one part of town as an example: Capitol Hill. It seemed the earthquake went up the side of the hill south of Roy Street, turned left on Broadway where it turns into 10th Ave E, then turned right on Aloha St. It seemed to get even more specific than that. The majority of the damage was on the south side of Aloha St. Weird.

Having worked on several of the old homes and buildings in that area over the years, I had a chance to get a good idea of what a difference masonry restoration and seismic upgrades made. I noticed that houses and buildings that had been repointed were in far better shape than those that had not had anything done. On a brick veneer structure, if the framing is bolted to the foundation, that is about all the seismic reinforcement it needs. (You might lose the brick, but not the house or building). But, one thing many of the old brick veneer buildings have in common is an unreinforced masonry chimney.  I saw chimneys that had been voluntarily seismically rebuilt, prior to the Nisqually quake, were standing just fine, with maybe a crack or two that was easily repaired. Chimneys and entire brick veneers, in some cases, had completely failed and come down where there had been no previous restoration work.

Unreinforced masonry buildings are a whole different ballgame. The rules for mandatory seismic upgrades are coming (of course, we have been saying that for about 10 years, but it is picking up momentum with the city’s official list of buildings). If you own one of these buildings, you are in for decision making pretty soon. If a masonry building is not on the historic register, then the options are more open. You can sell, demolish and rebuild, or retrofit. If the building is on the historic register, demolition becomes less of option.

Regardless, if you own an unreinforced brick structure, now is the time to find out what danger your building could be in. That can start with a phone call to a masonry contractor, or an engineer. Both are very busy, and either could cost you money just for a survey. A masonry contractor is only going to refer you to a structural engineer, but a mason can give practical guidance in methods that could save you money.

There are some hot deals on URM buildings in the Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett areas right now. If you are not risk adverse, and have the capital to invest in the necessary upgrades – anywhere from $25-$50 a square foot – it might be the time to “strike while the iron is hot.” If you do consider buying a URM building, make sure you receive good council from an engineer and restoration mason prior to purchase. Buyer beware.

Don’t let the Seattle Fault be your fault for missing a great opportunity!

VanWell Masonry’s Restoration division has over 100 years’ cumulative experience in Western Washington, restoring Seattle’s culturally significant and historic buildings. For inquiries, please email: or call: 360-568-6400.

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