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  • Writer's pictureMike Abell, Professional Civil Engineer

How to save money on your soft-story retrofit

Soft-story buildings are at risk of collapse during an earthquake, which is why it's important to retrofit your building and protect your property. However, seismic retrofit can be costly, and many property owners are looking for ways to save money while still meeting seismic standards.

If your building needs a soft-story retrofit, this is how to save money:

01). Avoid using steel moment frames and instead opt for wood-frame shear walls.

Steel moment frames are expensive seismic systems that are typically installed around openings in a building facade. While moment frames may be necessary in some cases, there is a misconception among professionals that they are required for any open-front wall line that has tuck-under parking, garage doors, entryways, or other large openings. In reality, the need for moment frames depends on the architectural layout of the entire ground floor, not just whether or not there is an open-front wall line.

Wood-frame shear walls are a cost-effective alternative to steel moment framing. They are installed within existing wall segments using wood framing, hardware, and plywood to create a nailed system. By using shear walls instead of moment frames, building owners can achieve a reliable and code-compliant design that reduces construction cost by up to 50%.

Two common examples where contractors, engineers, and architects often assume moment frames are required when in fact shear walls will suffice include:

Tuck-Under Parking

Buildings with tuck-under parking often have wall segments on either side of the opening to the parking area where shear walls can be installed instead. A "collector" element is then installed within the floor framing above the opening to collect and transfer seismic load to the shear walls, which safely resist the seismic loading.

Soft-story building with tuck-under parking (elevation view)

Retrofit with steel moment frames (plan view)

Retrofit with only wood-frame shear walls (plan view)

Garage Door Openings

Similarly, many professionals assume that moment frames are required along open-front wall lines with garage doors and entryways. However, there may be opportunity to use only wood-frame shear walls along the back of the garage. Here, seismic load is transferred to the shear walls by "cantilever diaphragm" action of the floor above the garage area.

Soft-story building with garage doors (elevation view)

Retrofit with steel moment frames (plan view)

Retrofit with only wood-frame shear walls (plan view)

A retrofit that only uses wood-frame shear walls can be reliable, code-compliant, and acceptable to building departments. Plus, it can cost half as much as a retrofit with steel moment frames.

02). Hire the right engineer.

One of the most effective ways to save money on your soft-story retrofit is by hiring the right engineer. While it may be tempting to choose the lowest quote, keep in mind that each engineer will provide a different design with varying costs. A skilled engineer will optimize your design, ensuring that you aren't paying for unnecessary expenses. Further, they add value with well-crafted documents, streamlined processes, and access to a network of high-quality contractors. Although you may need to pay a premium for their services, the long-term benefits outweigh the costs. With the right engineer, you can significantly reduce construction expenses and safeguard your building from earthquake damage or collapse.

03). Get multiple construction quotes.

Getting multiple construction quotes is another way to save money during soft-story retrofit. Shop around and get a few bids from contractors who specialize in your project type. Timing can also make a big difference in the price point of your construction quotes. The building industry slows down through the holidays and into March, so winter might be a good time to solicit construction quotes.

04). Communicate and negotiate.

Communicating that you want to save money and negotiating with your contractor are also ways to reduce the cost of soft-story retrofit. Remember that quotes for professional services aren't like price tags for items in stores; it's acceptable and financially sensible to explore opportunities for discount. "What can we do to bring cost down?"

05). Recover costs.

Additionally, you may be able to recover some of your soft-story retrofit costs through your city or tax write-offs. Check what financial leverage is available through your jurisdiction and consult with your CPA for tax advantages and strategies that can offset your capital improvement cost.


Your soft-story retrofit is a substantial investment, but by working with an experienced engineer, building owners can achieve a safe and effective seismic retrofit that won't break the bank.

At City Structural, our top priority is providing you with high-quality engineering services and cost-effective design that ensures your building meets seismic standards. If you're looking to save money on your soft-story retrofit, don't hesitate to leave us a message below to receive a complimentary briefing specific to your building and project needs. We look forward to helping you with your soft-story retrofit.

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