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California Hospitals Get a Seismic Reprieve

January 23, 2008

By Russell Fortmeyer

The California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) moved in December 2007 to allow the re-classification of potentially hundreds of seismically questionable hospitals in the state to avoid possible closure due to code non-compliance. The decision will likely ripple through the large market for health care design and construction that developed following Southern California’s Northridge earthquake in 1994, which left many hospitals still standing, but structurally unsound.

“This is giving hospitals more time to do what’s right,” says Chris Poland, a structural engineer and the president and CEO of San Francisco-based Degenkolb Engineers. After the 1994 earthquake, Poland served on an advisory board that assisted the CBSC in developing design regulations to upgrade old hospital facilities to meet contemporary seismic standards by this year; the CBSC’s decision extended that to 2013 for a handful of structurally-inadquate hospitals, and to 2020 for nearly 1,000 other health care structures qualifying for the re-classification. Poland says the CBSC’s decision was based on the availability of a new methodology and software program—called HAZUS, for Hazardous U.S.—used for gauging the seismic performance of hospitals in addition to the fact that some financially-strapped hospitals were unable to meet the requirements.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created HAZUS as a means to quickly and comprehensively determine a building’s ability to withstand natural disasters, including earthquakes. In the past, a hospital’s design and structure would be evaluated based on what code it was designed to meet, as well as what type of structural system was used. A building designed prior to 1973, when California adopted stringent hospital seismic standards, often would not have qualified as seismically safe and, after 1994, would have been identified as needing to be upgraded or replaced. Under the state’s Senate Bill 1953 legislation dating from 1994, owners of the most high-risk buildings had until 2008 to be upgraded and until 2030 to be replaced with structures designed to contemporary standards. This situation generated a significant amount of health-care design work in California in the last decade, choking regulatory review processes and increasing material and labor costs, while also keeping many architecture and design firms busy.

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With HAZUS, inspectors can now use building age, structural system type, building height, and documentation of structural deficiencies to then assess the overall risk of significant collapse. Poland says although the majority of hospitals don’t pose the threat of collapse, the point of legislation requiring full upgrade or replacement by 2030 was to ensure that hospitals would not be forced to close for repairs following an earthquake. “HAZUS gives us a way to come in and pluck out the very worst buildings to work on,” Poland says.

Zigmund Rubel, AIA, a principal with San Francisco-based Anshen + Allen Architects, says although the decision won’t directly affect his firm’s current projects, he expects a significant number of upgrade projects to be deferred several years, which could force down labor and material costs for his clients. “The real test is what the state is going to do to non-conformers in 2020,” Rubel says. “Are they going to close down a trauma center?” Rubel says he thinks the 2020 goal is probably unrealistic, as well, but notes that all it will take is another major earthquake to change public opinion and get the state to react. Carlos Amato, AIA, an associate principal at Los Angeles-based RBB Architects, says because the threat of earthquakes is constant, he always views these rules as temporary. “Every project is challenged financially, so this is releasing some of that pressure,” Amato says. “But the work still needs to be done.”

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