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  • Mike Abell, Professional Civil Engineer

How to save money on your soft-story retrofit

Planning a soft-story retrofit for your multi-unit building?

If so, here are the primary ways you can save money.

To reduce your overall project cost:

Don't use steel moment frames unless absolutely necessary

Steel moment frames are costly seismic systems that border large openings in a building facade. Not only is the steel expensive, but the systems must anchor into new foundation footings that are usually much wider than the frame itself. The whole installation typically costs $20,000-$30,000 per moment frame.

There's a common misconception among practicing "professionals" that moment frames must be installed along any open-front wall line that has tuck-under parking, garage doors, building entries, or other large openings that minimize wall length along a building facade.

This is not necessarily the case. The need for moment frames depends on the architectural layout of the entire ground floor, not on whether or not there is an open-front wall line.

Wood-frame shear walls are the cost-effective alternative to steel moment framing. They are nailed systems of wood framing, hardware, and plywood that are installed within existing wall segments and anchored to the existing foundation.

For your soft-story retrofit, the engineer's goal should be to provide a reliable and code-compliant design that uses only wood-frame shear walls. However, most engineers automatically call for costly moment frames along any open-front wall line, even when an equivalent condition can be achieved using only shear walls, which is often the case.

Here are two common examples where moment frames are specified when shear walls will suffice:

1. Tuck-Under Parking

Oakland Soft-Story Building with Tuck-Under Parking (elevation view)

This figure shows a building with tuck-under parking. Most engineers and contractors would see this condition and tell you that moment frames are necessary.

The floor plan of a soft-story retrofit with moment frames might look like this:

Soft-Story Retrofit with Steel Moment Frames (plan view)

However, there is usually wall length on either side of the tuck-under parking where we can install shear walls instead of moment framing, as is the case here.

The floor plan for the economical alternative with only shear walls might look like this:

Soft-Story Retrofit with Only Wood-Frame Shear Walls (plan view)

But what about the open-front wall line?

To address the seismic load tributary to the area of tuck-under parking, a "collector" element is installed within the floor framing above the opening to form a continuous load path that collects seismic load and transfers it to the shear walls, which safely resist the seismic loading.

This method of using shear walls instead of moment frames is reliable, code-compliant, acceptable to building departments, and will provide you with significant savings during construction.

2. Garage Door Openings

San Francisco Soft-Story Building with Garage Doors (elevation view)

This figure shows a building with garage doors and an entry. Again most "professionals" would say that you need a moment frame along this open-front wall line, and again, this might not be the case.

The floor plan of a soft-story retrofit with moment frames might look like this:

Soft-Story Retrofit with Steel Moment Frames (plan view)

Again, we see an opportunity to use only wood-frame shear walls in an adjacent area, this time at the back of the garage.

The floor plan for a soft-story retrofit with only shear walls might look like this:

Soft-Story Retrofit with Only Wood-Frame Shear Walls (plan view)

Again, this retrofit is reliable, code-compliant, acceptable to building departments, and should be less than half the cost of one with moment frames.

But what about the open-front wall line?

In this condition, seismic load transfers from the collector elements to the shear walls through the cantilever diaphragm action of the floor framing above the garage area. We analyze these existing assemblies and conditions to ensure adequate capacity for seismic resistance.

Ask your engineer to follow these suggestions to avoid using steel moment frames, and you can save tens of thousands of dollars during construction.

Hire the right engineer

The best way to maximize your savings during a soft-story retrofit project is to hire the right engineer, who can save you money in the following ways:

  • Pragmatic design that's more cost-effective to build

  • Better-performing design that mitigates damage during an earthquake

  • Connections to better contractors who price lower

  • Superior design documentation that streamlines permitting and construction

  • Expertise and optimized workflow that smooths the entire process

The best engineers provide value. Pay a small premium for this value, and you can dramatically offset overall costs, especially those associated with construction.

Some property owners think engineering design will be similar regardless of who they hire, which leads them to go with the lowest quote.

This is a huge mistake!

Different engineers will give you different engineering designs, of different quality, with dramatically different construction costs. Any engineer can easily over-design your retrofit, inflate construction costs, complicate an already complex process, cost you time, and leave you with related tasks that you might not get right, like finding the right contractor.

The best engineers add value, decrease your overall project cost, and save you money down the road when an earthquake occurs and their superior design saves your building from damage or even collapse.

Get multiple construction quotes

Be sure to shop around for construction quotes.

You'll want at least three bids for construction (which is standard), and you'll want them from contractors who specialize in your project type.

There's no need to go with someone recommended to you. In fact, it's best to do a thorough online search since it's unlikely that you are connected to the best contractors through your personal network.

Note that the top professionals in different fields tend to work together. If you know a high-performing realtor, architect, or engineer, ask for their recommendation, and be sure to let the contractor know who referred you.

Another hint is that timing can make a big difference in the price point of your construction quotes. Contractors have a lot of overhead, and they need to keep their crews working. If a contractor is booked with projects, they'll quote much higher since their demand is high. On the other hand, if the contractor needs a project, they'll bring their price down substantially to ensure that they have work. The building industry slows down through the holidays and into March, so November might be a good time to solicit construction quotes for your soft-story retrofit project.

Communicate that you want to save money

Tell your engineer and contractor that you want to minimize costs. This is totally fine!

The minimum, code-compliant retrofit is a perfectly good retrofit; this is what industry experts prescribe to everyone through the building code.

You're doing a service to yourself, your tenants, the city, the region, the economy, the government - to everyone - by retrofitting your building, and you're perfectly welcome to optimize resources and minimize costs.


And negotiate!

Many property owners accept quotes for professional services as if they're a price tag on an item in a store.

This isn't the case.

You can ask your specialists to discount their prices; this is a normal and financially sensible thing to do.

Recover costs through the city

If your city requires you to perform a soft-story retrofit for your building, you can likely recover a certain amount of this capital improvement cost through a marginal rent increase over a period of time.

Oakland, for example, lets property owners recapture 70% of total project cost (including design fees, permit fees, and construction) through a 10% rent increase over 25 years, as outlined on the Oakland Soft-Story Retrofit Program FAQ Page under items 14 and 15.

Check what financial leverage is available through your jurisdiction.

Recover cost through a tax write-off

Also, check with your CPA on the tax advantages and strategies that can offset the cost of your soft-story retrofit.

You likely have opportunity for a substantial tax write-off.


These are a few of the primary ways you can save costs on your soft-story retrofit.

If you have any questions, or if you'd like a free consultation, please leave us a message below.

We'd be happy to help get you started.

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