URMs Whats Coming

Unreinforced Masonry Buildings (URMs): What’s Coming

Article written by Marty Smith

Having become familiar with building owners and developers over the years, one of their common complaints is about all the hoops they must jump through to make a change to their private property. Whether they are building a structure, adding to a structure or the property, even attempting to bring a property up to current code, the regulations can be daunting.

Property values have skyrocketed. So have costs. Having been in the trades my entire adult life, I can tell you I have never seen anything like what is going on today. It is a boom time in the construction business in Seattle. In turn, the developer and owner faces a dilemma: if they are choosing to build, add, restore, or remodel, these services are all at a premium price from contractors, architects and engineers. Supply and demand. At the same time, owners are facing restrictions on rent, dictated by housing initiatives. Affordable housing initiatives are currently the ‘hot button’ item for owners and developers, and will be for a while.

Coming down the pike is the Unreinforced Masonry (URM) code upgrades and compliance. The regulations have been written. The buildings have been identified in the city of Seattle. To further understand what is coming, it first must be understood what the city is defining as a URM building. The city defines a URM building as any structure with unreinforced, red brick or clay tile bearing walls. That definition does not include concrete frame buildings with masonry infills, unreinforced concrete masonry unit (concrete block) buildings, or steel frame buildings with masonry curtain walls.

The URM retrofit standards that buildings will be required to meet can be found online here: www.seattle.gov/dpd/urm.

The standard is commonly called a Bolts Plus system. It is coming. The question is when? The city has been kicking this can down the road for decades. Arguably, since the 50s. The primary road block has been the price tag of retrofits. There has not been a politician yet that has had the courage to require his or her constituents to spend a lot of money on an investment they have already made.

Right now, the fight is about rent control and subsidized housing. It is expected that the URM retrofit bill will be written and presented to the city council by summer of 2017. The bill will require a champion within the council. Sooner or later one of the city council members will realize the devastating loss of life that will occur in the event of major earthquake. The Nisqually quake was under 7.0 (relatively small). The southeast Alaska quake of 1965 was 9.2 – the biggest ever recorded in North America. Without retrofit, many of the URM buildings in Seattle will collapse in a significant earthquake.

The clock on the URM building retrofit will probably start ticking sometime in 2018. URM masonry building owners will be put on notice that their building will require upgrades, and a timeline will be given. Those choosing to do nothing will face an ever-increasing gradient of fines for lack of compliance.

Here is the part you should pay attention to. When that city clock starts ticking, given the available workforce in the city and the demand contractors foresee, pricing is going to be even more extravagant than what is being currently quoted. Again, supply and demand. There will be a rush of new contractors in town. I hesitate saying “fly by night” contractors – as many will be legit – but, my experience of watching what happened after the Nisqually quake, and the sudden rush of cheap competition that came into town, cemented my thoughts of ‘buyer beware.’ I am still fixing the stuff done by some of these guys to some of the buildings around town.

Owners and managers are also facing another dilemma. Some of the structural engineers around town are telling clients to wait until the rules come out. Well, we all know what the rules are going to be. We all know that there is not going to be much money available for the retrofits. We all know that retrofit pricing is going to go up significantly when demand goes up due to regulations. Why wait? If you start the process now, have an engineered plan by spring or summer, have a contract signed by fall or winter, you are still going to wait six months to a year before the work begins. That puts us somewhere in 2018, or early 2019. While others are looking at starting the process, frantically looking for engineers and contractors to meet their budgets and deadlines, you will be well ahead of the curve.

VanWell Masonry’s Restoration division has over 100 years’ cumulative experience in Western Washington, restoring and preserving masonry structures. From commercial to multi-family and single family – we will analyze it all. For inquiries, please email: info@vanwellmasonry.com or call: 360-568-6400.

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