Earthquake		 Construction Service Jim Gillett Oakland, CA Simpson		 hold-down Structural		 grade plywood Jim		 Gillett with palm nailer Mudsill   blocking attached nailing schedule Structural    	grade plywood Hold downs <Simpson> and anchor bolts

Seismic Retrofit Questions: "Ask Jim"

James Gillett is dedicated to the preservation of old, quality housing stock in the Bay Area and the West Coast in general. To this end, he is making this site a repository of information for new homeowners, do-it-yourselfers, builders, repair-people, real estate professionals, and anyone else who might benefit from the decades of local building experience that Earthquake Construction Service provides. Gillett/ECS offers this information as a community service; he also wants your input, plus technical and practical ideas that you may have to share: "lessons learned", or "What to avoid next time" stories. To contact Jim in Oakland:
(510) 525-6939

General Information:
A Survival Guide for New, Current, or Soon-to-be Homeowners

Is cost the most important criteria when hiring a handyman or considering multiple bids?

With economic slowdowns and market fluctuations, there are plenty of contractors and handypersons willing to perform work at cost, or below the average cost of other builders. However, it is in your best interest to utilize labor that will do quality work that merits respect and further referral. Consider this: your 100 year-old house has probably had significant money invested in its maintenance over its lifetime. It was built of old-growth lumber and fitted together carefully by local builders. A hundred years from now, will the future owners be able to look back and see who hired the lowest bidder to do important work? The lowest bidder will probably not use the best materials or the best labor methods.

For starters, you always want to hire a contractor/handyperson that is licensed by the State Contractor’s (CSLB) License Board for home repairs. (See "Questions to Ask A Potential Builder"). Beware of anyone advertising that they are bonded. The standard bond posted in Sacramento with the CSLB is NOT an extra performance or completion bond. To advertise this is a violation of state codes, so call the CSLB when you suspect the standard bond is being offered as an 'extra'.
Always get at least three bids and toss out the least expensive bid, unless you positively know that the builder submitting the lowest bid is doing ALL of his own labor. Ask the middle and top bids to explain their bids; are they ONLY using experienced workers? Often times the low-cost bids utilize unskilled workmen, and a dishonest contractor might not be honest with you about the quality of his workmen. Obviously, workmen with low skill levels may not do the best work for you.
Seismic improvement work requires special skills, tools, and materials. Especially in the current economic downturn, there are plenty of specialty builders and handymen (such as gardeners or kitchen improvement contractors) that will take on other trades just to get their bills paid, and hey will sometimes work at cost, so be careful when considering multiple bids.
Also: consider that Workmen's Comp is the largest expense to a builder in most cases, so skipping insurance or not reporting the labor on the job are very common ways to keep costs down for an unscrupulous builder. Builders who do much of their own work will bring the best quality of work to your project.

TOP OF LIST What is a ‘Mechanic’s Lien’ and why is it important to have one?

The Mechanic’s Lien Notice is required by law in the State of California, and it should be on the front page of any contract you sign. It should be followed by a Mechanic’s Release at the end of the work, which will state that all workmen, material suppliers, and material men have been paid in full. This protects against low-cost contractors that hire low-cost immigrant labor, only to dump them when they demand higher wages or basic worker protection. Also, injured employees are your responsibility without a Mechanic’s Release; this may result in claims against you 20 years from now.
The Mechanic’s Lien law is very specific in the state of California: any contract without a lien notice on the front page is in violation of the CSLB laws. HOWEVER, at the end of every job and before any final bill is paid, as for and receive a mechanic's release. A release can be simple and short, such as: "All workmen, material suppliers, and material men have been paid in full." Jim says to record this document to protect yourself from any future claims against your property.

TOP OF LIST What is Plan Set A?

Plan Set A is a prescriptive seismic upgrade plan that was drafted by the Structural Engineers of Northern CA (SEoNC) and first adopted in Berkeley in April 2007. Plan Set A is a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to impose a ‘one size fits all’ approach to every seismic retrofit, when the fact is that there are a dozen different styles of framing construction in pre-World War II buildings alone. Any contractor doing seismic work will use Plan Set A infrequently, as there are better, more cost-effective plans that are readily available. A first-time do-it-yourselfer can easily be misled into costly and time-consuming mistakes by blindly adhering to Plan Set A. By making the work much harder and more expensive than it has to be, Plan Set A usually slows down or stops retrofit work. Consider Plan Set A to be a ‘work in progress’ that builders dislike for many reasons.

Plan Set A is limited to buildings where the stud wall height does not exceed 48" at any one point on the building perimeter, and the structure is a Single Family Dwelling (SFD) that does not exceed two stories in height, and has conventional lumber siding. Jim says that 40% or more of the wood-frame residential buildings he looks at are complex in load path, and they would benefit from an experienced engineer's analysis; often times there is little work required.
Cities such as San Francisco have very rigorous standards of design that qualify work as a seismic retrofit. Nailing up sheets of plywood on stud walls is not a seismic retrofit, and, in some cases, can actually overstress the floor above.
To get an idea of just how much builders dislike Plan Set A, do a simple phone survey of seismic builders in the White Pages, or just talk to Jim in person. Plan Set A is an unmitigated disaster of high costs and unnecessarily difficult work.

TOP OF LIST The disaster of the city of Berkeley Plan Set A disaster planning.

Some discussion areas on the City Of Berkeley Plan Set A and the first correction of it by the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California.


Seismic improvement builders with a working minimum of at least 100 competed permitted jobs will have very very strong comments on this plan out of Berkeley. Simple telephone calls out of the phone books will confirm many of the topics here.  Most all professional experienced builders dislike this plan and most of them will not bid or perform this important work accordingly.


**** Please note that most of the Berkeley Safety Commission who conjured this plan up and the engineers who have made the first corrections of it are very nice and well meaning people.

ECS/J. Gillett has worked with many of these fine people in the past and will work with them in the future.

Everyone makes mistakes now and then. This Plan A is considered a perfect storm of them by many people who work under houses in crawl spaces for a living.  The reasons that this plan is very harmful to most property owners, first time builders, those building immediately after an emergency, do it yourselfers, to Realtors@, and to city building departments among other is:

1.   Liability issues

2.   One Size Does Not Fit All

3.   Extremely expensive above other established plans

4.   Written by elites who do not understand most old home conditions well.

5.   Inflexible rules

6.   Completed work is rarely in complete compliance with the Plan A.   "Lawsuit City".


Of the dozen pre-WWII framing types and the many after up until the middle 1980s when rigorous plan checking was required to build new in California state wide, the plan address just the very most rectangle or simple structures. The 80s requirements account for wind loads and seismic loads. The standards change and only experienced decent builders and regulated engineers should be considered for assessment of complex shaped buildings. ECS/J. Gillett estimates that about 40% and more in some cases of property in the local cites in the Bay Area should be analyzed by experienced engineers.  Often times the buildings require little work if any.


The Berkeley Plan Set A is just a very restrictive rewrite in essence of a proscriptive code championed in the early 1990s and found about worthless for a large variety of reasons, some of the above apply. Just the lovely city of San Leandro, their building department in what was then the world headquarters of a large steel strong tie company there also, the city, stayed with the proscriptive code for small wood frame buildings. It was labelled as voluntary yet building in any other manner took so much work that most top builders stopped working there. ECS/J. Gillett became so tired of having to explain the severe problems with the plan each and every time a permit was called for, that they will not work in that town unless the bid is on a large engineered type job.


The improved by engineers plan uses warehouse type plywood where Berkeley specified Structural grades known for special glues along with all select lumbers and other factors. The engineered wood Association or APA can provide more information.  Overnailing past the outside of the plywood layers into mystery warehouse plywood is always a problem. This is just one of the methods in which the engineers made the plan worse. Again, talk to the top builders.

The very long runs of weak plywood as opposed to short strong capacity walls increase labor, material costs along with ease of work which in often very tight crawl areas is a considerable expense.

The framing work behind the shear panels requires more work in general than the shear diaphragms. Keeping that work contained keeps property owners costs down also.

Then again, the steel and glass engineers who have worked on the plan lately may not care much for their work costing $2000 more per job than other well know ways to build with.

Some of these people are approachable.  Any local city council member who has recommended this method as the only way to build with should be able to provide any property owners with a reason to spend extra thousands of dollars needlessly.  Call them.

The Bay Area quickly ramped up to the general availability of Struc 1 and 2 plywood after the 1989 Loma Prieta seismic event.  Other areas of the country can also. The advantages of avoiding the problems of overnailing in general alone are a reason to build with it.

It makes the work of city inspectors much more efficient.

Plywood is graded A through D for finish and sub species of lumber 1 through 4 or 5 in general. Your seasoned builders who offer hands on classes can explain all of this.

Please note that in modern engineering, most engineers put themselves in for nation wide awards for doing volunteer work such as "improving" local ordnance's. Their thinking is that these ordinances will go nation wide. Hence using a plywood available at any lumber warehouse instead of what the top builders use.  It would take to much work to have the better grades of lumber specified for better building practices.  


The plan A is aimed at people who read and understand not only blueprints but the workings of building and design department and various standards including abbreviations.

These complex plans are a real world real time disaster for the first time builders. Also to consider that the building trades have many people who do not read or rite well.

In the blue print size of 24X36" these plans are hard to read. In the ASO correct shrunken head size as on most computer screens, it looks more like Chinese blind stitch sewing work. Blind Stitch has been illegal in California for a few decades now. Most home computers cannot make it appear much better than just about illegible.

Maybe FEMA can hand out magnifying glasses, who knows. 

The example drawing on the first page shows about all of the plywood walls built in the corners of the buildings.  Top builders do not do this. The corners are the areas most likely to have large utility lines such as sewer pipes and electricall raceways that have to be moved or framed around along with entry way doors, major diagonal bracing along with on any slope being the hardest area to access.  It is better to move back into a section of the crawl space where the work can be done sitting up when possible.   There are well known procedures for this and could be much better spelled out in the plans.

While the modern buildings on slopes have at least 18" of clearance, it is often half of that on older buildings.  Competitive builder start charging triple for those areas. 

The latest plans have some written directions about not having to work in the corners, it is often found on the 5th or 10th reading of the plans. More often than not it is found after the plans have been approved and only when the work is attempted does the idea of working in better locations along a crawl space become apartment.

The builders such as ECS/J. Gillet who work with first time builders and others as a public service hear of these horror stories on a very very much too real basis.  The joys of revising plans at a city building department are memorable ones. 


The Plan Set A is very very rigid in its allowed materials, and schedules for fasteners.  It traps builders in to one brand of strong ties only in general such as foundation side plates for anchoring. It allows little or no use of hold down devices of all types, effective nailing patterns and schedules, vent hole patterns, and many many unbuildable or outright undesirable practices not utilized by experienced builders in this field..

We at ECS hear a great amount of comments about apparently the writers of this plan have never actually built a single job in a tough to work in crawl area. 

For instance, anchor bolts go in at irregular intervals due to foundation defects such as

cracks,  rotations, dropout/voids, soft areas, placement of brackets, existing framing and funny at best reframing work etc..

The plan requires that vent holes be bored or drilled exactly above each and every bolt.

Well, the anchor bolts are almost always inspected for condition before permission to close is given in writing. Besides being grossly redundant, the appearance  of the walls gos to heck like this and it is dangerous as well as ordered on the plan.

The looks of finish shear walls is important for the value of the property and the value of a job well done.  Regular well spaced vent holes look good. Irregular up and down holes at random widths looks like a boat rocking around on heavy seas.  It makes the work look just plain foul and as performed by rank amateurs. 

The plan orders the bolt holes be run in directly on top of the bolts.  Catching a rotating cutting tool on the top of a long bolt thread is a good way to break an arm. 

Again, the top builders refuse this plan for many many more reasons than this.

The few plans sent in marked up by the builders who work with design engineers often times are about unreadable due to all the notes.  Apparently they don't get read. Plus the "refinements" to the Plan Set are performed on a volunteer basis...

ECS/J. Gillett has constantly asked that no one without at least 100 wood frame seismic jobs completed work on this plans.  Apparently that would make much to much sense.


In structural condition assessments for plan compliance concerning legal actions, it takes very little deviation from any blue prints to show culpability for defective work, incomplete inspections, and negligence. Features such as listed joist hangers that don't fit older buildings could trigger that condition when the correct fitting yet different bracket is installed.  In older buildings there are many walls and framing styles that these plans have to be added to such as in about a half dozen different stud wall to floor joinery methods that are missing from the plan as currently drawn.  Plus to build in some areas requires much better nail patterns than drawn here on the plans the range of deviation from the approved plans is about limitless.

So once extra work is added to the plan there are grounds for legal claims against the builders, the city inspectors and plan check people who allowed it, the Realtors@ who sold the property as "proofed", the past owners, the people who dreamed this plan up etc. to start with.

Most blue print work from good engineers is assigned a process called special inspections where a testing laboratory at around $1000 per residential job is reqired to count nail spacing and the placement of strapping including if every nail hole is filled with the right nail and so on.

This eases the work of the city site inspectors who may have 20 buildings to inspect in two or three hours of any given  day.

These plan sets fall  into a space between quick site inspections and full special inspection work. It exposes city site inspectors to charges of having missed a single bracket or worse.

Engineers who design for complex wood frame work have "hold blameless" type contracts that shield them against small nuisance problems up to larger claims.  Broken plaster and masonry which will occur in most buildings that remain standing can now be charged against the Plan Set for all who are involved as there is not warranty or declarations of expected levels of damage for this work.  

After a major E,Q. event, along with the demand for housing for residents, the amount of lawyers descending on the area afflicted will be large. This is a major reason why local good builders will not touch this plan. Better legal language is urgently needed for the plan.


Seismic work when not with full blue prints for complex buildings with calculation pages is an over the counter simple permit process. Plan Set A turns that over the counter process into in some cities into a two week wait. Were all the over the counter trades such as plumbing, electrical, or HVAC to go to some quasi plus blue print standard, the local building departments would have one month waits and lines out the doors. The notes to call your local building department and schedule a meeting with the counter permit people to put in anchor bolts is truly stunning in its ineptness.

This plan disrespects our hard working site inspectors out in the field. Often these people have many buildings to look at in a short amount of time every single day. Along with the fact that most large cities do not defend their inspectors well against even simple legal challenges, this plan disrespects our site inspectors badly.


Plan Set A is a recipe for disaster on many angles. Most of the good builders will not bid on it leaving the work for termite type operations usually using unskilled day laborers.

ECS sees a great amount of this work that while it passes a city inspection is weak or not done very well.  Home building inspectors are also ones to talk with  about the level of skilled work found in some trades advertised as pest work. Call around.

The Plan Set has been touted as a relief for confiscatory taxes such as the transfer tax robbery cities engage in at time of title transfer. Getting some relief from these fees may not be worth having some poor slap dash plywood nailed badly according to the plan installed into your new property.

While this plan is voluntary, many cities where the building departments budgets are driven and controlled by various council members, those who may have had their names mentioned in a local news paper along with how this new revolutionary plan will save all buildings from problems in an earthquake and just how swell the council member is, blah, blah, blah, it is almost impossible for all except an experienced builder to get another type of over the counter permit for shear wall work with complying with the Plan Set A.

Anyone considering this work is well advised to take a hands on type class in the work from experienced engineers and builders. They may also want to get consultation on getting the permits without all the problems associated with the Plan Set A.


At one time in the now distant past, engineers used a standard of "would I build it in my own house" .  Just spending the extra thousands of dollars for the long runs of boiler plate type very weak lumber warehouse plywood along should answer that issue much less working needlessly in the worst areas to build in in a tight crawl space, for starters. 

Jim Gillett welcomes your well thought  out ideas on how to eliminate the disaster of the Berkeley Plan Set A.

TOP OF LIST Which types of soils will perform best in an earthquake?

Softer soils, such as Alluvial Plane soil, usually transmit seismic energy well. There can be large spikes in seismic energy wherever there is an interface of bedrock and Alluvial soil, such as MacArthur Ave. @ 72nd or the intersection of College Ave and Claremont. Damage will be greatly intensified in soft soils during moderate or large seismic events. Alluvial Plane type is typically much better than Esturine Mud or uncompacted fill. Various State and Federal agencies can help you with maps of soil types in the Bay Area.
California Geological Survey Maps
USGS Map - "Soil Type and Shaking Hazard in the Bay Area"

TOP OF LIST Surfing the web, I came across an article about 'Base Shear'; is this important to consider in retrofitting?

The term 'base shear' is just one isolated and distinct form of the specialized engineering terms that are used to in Lateral Force Analysis. It is associated with the engineering concept of 'overturn', which is usually calculated for individual dwelling units or sections of buildings. Base shear should NOT be used as the only criteria in a final design, since the base force is just one part of lateral force engineering work. Beware: letting any contractor do design work on a complex, wood frame building is asking for trouble. Be very careful of any person who is not licensed by the state of California as an engineer who claims to have design knowledge. One of the marks of a top builder is knowing when to recommend an engineering review of a complex structure.

TOP OF LIST How do I know if I need to hire an Engineer?

At one time, engineers were held to very high standards for performance and cost management. More recently, however, in Jim's experience, a large number of Bay Area engineers design in a manner that does not properly address cost management. Engineering trade groups do not have the organizational wherewithal to pursue 'rip-off' type engineers who do not earn their fees and leave many consumers with the most expensive methods of work. Click here for an excellent resource on when to call an engineer and what to look for in an engineer's design: Should You call a Contractor or an Engineer (by Tony Demascole)

TOP OF LIST How do I pay and/or work with an Engineer?

Never, never pay an engineer up front. Wait until the initial documents have been delivered to you and you have reviewed them before you cut a check to any design professional. The top engineers who come out for a preliminary inspection will typically follow up with other services, such as taking measurements, calculating loads, and drawing up blueprints and calc pages. However, the Bay Area is infested with engineers who promise the customer engineering services, then do a quick walk-thru site inspection, then demand a check. There are about 1/2 dozen of these people with engineering stamps will then proceed to issue the customer a two or three page pile of goo, two pages of which are disclaimers, such as "No engineering was performed", "These suggestions cannot be used to build from", and the ubiquitous "Have a Nice Day!" The front page will contain some vague instructions to install A-35 straps every 6" around the perimeter of the basement, and to nail up plywood on every square inch of every wall in the basement area.

Often times the local wino sleeping under a freeway overpass can deliver a better service, Jim says.

Yes, there are local engineering societies, but there are never any resources devoted to enforcement, except for codes of conduct which are violated one by one by these boiler-plate rotting corpses. Every day, the worthless report that you paid $395 to $1,000 for will rankle you more. Most engineering groups such as SEAoNC are primarily concerned with large steel and concrete buildings, and they have little time for wood frame construction work and standards. For these groups to police any of its members seems like a lost cause. Phone calls placed to the groups headquarters go unanswered, or you are referred to some obscure committee that will never respond to you.
When an engineer delivers to you a worthless document (such as the one I described), DO NOT PAY FOR THIS GARBAGE. And don't fall for the dodge that the actual engineering work will be forthcoming at a later time, or when you pay a higher fee. Many of these fraudulent operation engineers will never answer your phone calls after the initial attempt to fleece you. State licensing groups in Sacramento that monitor these professionals will be more than glad to hear about the attempted ripoff being perpetuated on you.
Jim routinely sees engineer's reports that have cost $399.99, then lead to $30k - $40k of work; The top full-service design engineers are usually paid from $4k - $6k for a full analysis that involves a full inspection and blueprints. Since the job costs can often be lower, the is often the more cost-effective approach.

Buyer beware with engineers. SEAoNC is absolutely no help in this matter. If you're in doubt about these 'Dirty Half Dozen' engineers, call James Gillett at ECS in the afternoons.

TOP OF LIST How can I make sure my home inspection tells me what I need to know?

Some inspections are more thorough than others, and cost is not always a good indicator of results. The most cost-effective home inspection is the one that addresses your specific concerns. Good inspectors will form the report to address any issues of condition or existing work, and, if necessary, suggest that the issue of concern be re-inspected by a specialist in that field. A quickie-type inspection, on the other hand, would just flag some of the items, at best.
Inspections for seismic condition should include the difference between: 1. The standard single-family dwellings that are on two stories or less and rectangular, and 2. A complex building type that would benefit from an inspection by an honest & experienced engineer. The $400 engineered walk-thru inspections are well known for boiler-plate type recommendations that will often suggest very high construction costs. On the other hand, an engineer who analyzes wood-frame buildings and their load paths will often minimize needless disruptions to work in the lower-level dwelling units. One might assume an engineer would always suggest ways to keep work to a minimum, but that is not always the case with a walk-thru. Never pay for an engineer's report until it arrives in the mail; when it is three pages long and two pages are filled with disclaimers stating that no engineering work was performed, you have been had and you should keep the report fees. To promise to provide engineering services, then give the customer three pages of fluff is in violation of many trade and professional groups' (such as SEAoNC) code of conduct as well as most local law codes. This form of bait & switch is very prevalent in the Bay Area real estate industry also, says Jim.
Basic inspection information on a seismic upgrade or retrofit work: the nailing pattern on both the edge and field nailing, such as, 4 inches on center at the edges and 6 -12 inches in the middle of the field pattern.
An absence of vent holes in top and bottom of the plywood panels between the stud bays usually indicates that the work was built without permits and some extra inspection may be required to determine if the lumber blocks (which fasten the plywood to the mudsill) are well fastened. Remember, seismic work is unregulated by trade groups as a specialty; this means that any builder can proclaim themselves an earthquake expert. Also, often the highest cost written contract is no indicator of top-notch work.
For a quick test of inspectors (or builders), ask them to define a complex building site. Ask them at what point they call for an experienced engineer. Are they are more concerned about getting work than making sure your home is protected in an earthquake? Can they inform you what to look for in an engineer's design? Have they ever been stumped by a building's condition or design, and decided an engineer was needed? It is critical that when dealing with a complex structure, that you always get a licensed engineer's input that not only allows competitive bids, but answers all insurance requirements also.
An inspector should look for connections about plywood shear walls that use metal straps, usually called "L reinforcing angles' or L-90 types (about 9" long) that are often installed with palm nailers. These straps often times require lumber blocking to be fitted between the floor joists, and this work is not easy. This detail is often missing on many retrofit jobs , especially those performed by builders with little experience in structural work.

Have your building inspector explain the difference between boilerplate and hand-crafted seismic work. Call ECS too see some examples of their previous work, or have J. Gillett write up a report (for a fee) that will indicate what previous work needs to be replaced, what can be improved upon, and what (if any) part of the previous work is OK.

TOP OF LIST What is a blueprint, and how is it different from a sketch?

A blueprint is a format document, usually 24" x 36" that has an exact scale to it, such as one inch equals one foot. Often times the blueprint is divided up into lettered sections with specific details, such as the top view or side view. While many computer-generated sets of blue-prints often have similar looking views, there are still many established engineers and designers who draw blueprints by hand. Most blueprints come with a separate set of calculations.

Blueprints are different from sketches. Sketches are associated with over-the-counter type permits that are issued without design review: repair or upgrade work, such as new plumbing lines or new electrical service. Many cities do not ask for either sketches or blueprints for over-the-counter permits.
Sketches typically will have just a simple 'sight line' measurement, indicating, for example, that the building is 46' long and 32' wide. Some cities will want the distance to the adjacent property line on a sketch. Supplemented with an easy-to-read detail of work description, sketches will do for most over-the-counter work. Usually two or more copies are required in ink or photocopy, with your name, address, and contract number at the top of the page. Of course, all sketches should have a north arrow (an N with an arrow pointing north).

Most cities will have at least one major Blue Print and Supply company. There is an urban corrollary that they are usually located in older brick or tilt-up type warehouse buildings, which, of course, perform very poorly in a seismic event.

TOP OF LIST I am interested in having a tankless (or on demand) water heater installed; What should I know?

Jim says: When it comes to quality upgrades to older houses, there are few better than having hot water on-demand for all sinks.

Water heaters keep 30 - 50 gallons of hot water available at all times; for a typical residential family that bathes or showers four times a day, the hot water heater is the usually largest single user of energy in the household. Tank water heaters often show signs of either water pipe connections leaking or exhaust vent gas pipes being corroded, things that need to be dealt with at property transfer time. Often times the monies in escrow or set aside to brace these antiquated monsters can be better utilized.
To cut the gas bill in half or more, and to have full time, on-demand water for as long as is required, install a tankless, or on demand water heater. The size for a two bathroom house is the 240 gallon/hour model. The cost of these units to tradesmen (before installation) is around $1,000. They can be mounted anywhere near their point of use, such as on outside walls, or on-wall inside the bathroom. Modern units are quiet and come in a variety of shapes and models.
The do-it-yourself work to install one of these units is one of the easier home improvements a builder can make. Shop around for installation costs such as from handymen services. Beware: many plumbers go to town on their bids here, charging money for services they are not familiar with.

When redoing the plumbing in a house, consider adding under-the-sink, electrical powered "flash" type water heaters. They deliver almost instant hot water for dishwashing. The under-sink flash heaters require an electrical circuit be placed there. Often times, in older housing stock, the knob and tube wiring is upgraded at time of purchase; it's a good idea to have the electrical lines and outlet boxes (for flash heaters) installed at this time. These units pay for themselves quickly with greatly reduced gas bills, not to mention the 'green' credentials you'll want to gloat about.

TOP OF LIST I have been told acoustic ceilings often contain asbestos; is this true?

Acoustical ceilings are a premium wall and ceiling finish that are distinguished by a rough 'cottage cheese' finish. No, asbestos was never used in this type of finish , but, when in doubt, call for a basic and quick inspection from a building professional in that trade. The vermiculite used in acoustical ceilings is from the same sources as talcum powder and sand aggregates in general. Jim says: before you tear out an acoustical ceiling that still looks good, consult a builder experienced in that trade (they are listed in the phone book). Some rooms have very bright or loud sound characteristics; following a trend to tear out a 'popcorn' ceiling may leave your entertainment room with so-so acoustics.

TOP OF LIST   Aside from retrofitting my house, what do you recommend I do to prepare for the 'big one'?

It will take the Sherriff's Department and the National Guard time to establish the rule of law after a massive damaging urban disaster (such as the 1906 earthquake). Some citizens may want to consider and plan for the protection of their families and their property. Also, it is better to have a 5 gallon sealed bucket of water and a 30 lb. bag of rice stored in the basement than to go hungry and thirsty; after the food and water supply lines built on soft ground fail, it could easily be a week or two before distribution of essential stores is returned to normal. Without emergency supplies, you might have to trek miles to stand in long lines for these supplies.

Jim says that, along with a power generator, the well-stocked emergency supply kit will contain triage and first-aid equipment, as well as shovels for slit trench digging and plastic rolls to cover broken windows. Some cities such as Oakland and Berkeley have neighborhood groups with caches of emergency equipment.
Berkeley Office of Emergency Services

One of the laws passed after Katrina was the 'Disaster Recovery Personal Protection Act', which was signed into law 10/9/2006. This law protects gun owners during emergencies, and it supersedes any local agency's tyranny. This is a private matter for every household to consider.
Chabot Gun Club
Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP)
Jews for Preservation of Firearms Ownership
Many lessons have been learned from the Hurricane Katrina event. In the event of a major event on the Hayward fault, worst-case scenarios indicate up to 200,000 homeless people without food or water; after Katrina, there were 7,500 people homeless. Jim says: the difference in scale is very difficult to comprehend.

For the Do-It-Yourselfer:
Construction Techniques, Building Code Help, and Materials Advice

TOP OF LIST How do you know if blocking is properly attached to the mud sill?

The lumber blocking at the base of the shear walls must withstand age, seasoning, and someday, the sliding and uplift force . The mudsill lumber will often shrink, curl up, or split around nails. Often, a block secured in place with 4 or 5 nails will have lifted a sufficient distance off the mud sill such that you can see daylight underneath it when viewed from the side. In retrofit work, often times an anchor bolts are installed directly down through the lumber block; when built this way, nails are not required. Blocking that does not have an anchor bolt going through it should have 10 – 15 nails carefully installed in each block in order to connect them adequately to the mud sill. 4 or 5 nails per block is worthless. Expect to pay at least $300 for a builder to come back and set up power tools so he can cut open a panel and check for block condition (grain orientation, condition of the fastened blocking, etc.) Many of the seismic jobs I inspect have blocks that pull up from the mud sill easily. A homeowner can easily do this test with a flat, right-angle pry bar. Just test one or two of the blocks; if they pry up and out easily, then they were not securely fastened. Sometimes there is a shear wall adjacent to a front porch area that is open, allowing for inspection on the rear side. Also, I’ve been asked whether staples are an appropriate method of fastening lumber blocks in place. As part of a solid general building standard, ECS recommends against using staples to secure lumber framing. Simply put, the large amount of staples required to keep a block in place are difficult to install without driving some of the staple legs into large lumber grains, which will lead to splitting of the block, especially as it ages. As pre-drilling is required with today’s modern lumber, staples are not recommended by ECS, since you can’t pre-drill for them. If you can find a state-licensed engineer to put his stamp on a set of plans using staples for high-strength retrofit work, please let me know about it. Sinker nails (nails with a green vinyl coating) and staples are frowned upon by most building departments (see "What kind of nails should I use?" )

TOP OF LIST   Why is it important to know about lumber end-grain orientation?

The nailing process can break and split lumber, especially today's large-grain modern lumber, which is harvested from very small trees. Splitting ususally extends completely through the lumber blocks or long stud, and is caused mostly by large fasteners such as framing nails in the same grain. It is not unusual with today's green certified lumber to have two nails one foot apart that are in the same grain, causing the block to split apart. Jim says: it is not unusual to look at 122 'two-bys' in a bundle at a lumber yard and only be able to select about a dozen for good building practices. There is no free lunch as far as 'green' (small tree) wood. Areas such as the rain forest in Canada export fine older trees, and they renew just fine; it is only here in the U.S. that we prefer junk.
Old grown lumber with tight grains does not have this problem as much as modern lumber. In a more seasoned section of lumber, the older growth rings move towards the exterior of the tree, and the sap gets compressed to a very small mass. It is important to look at the end-grain orientation of studs, posts, beams, or any 'Structural' rated lumber, as the builder needs to insure that edge-facing lumber is placed accordingly. The best, most experienced builders will realize that the plywood nails should nail perpendicular to the framing and preferably to the tighter sap wood side. Working with modern lumber (since 1997) requires more skilled builders and dedicated labor to achieve good work.

Beware of pest-control operators who want to remove long lengths of wall studs, as these studs may be well-seasoned old-growth. A wall rebuilt with green, wet Douglas Fir will shrink, sometimes as much as 1/4" per foot, and ultimately pull walls, floors, and window openings with it. Countless fine older buildings are compromised by this slipshod termite work. Jim says: in seismic work we often see more damage caused by repairs to the building from pest workers than any insect ever did...

Hiring any builder who does not stop and study end-grain lumber is a false economy.

TOP OF LIST Should I used kiln dried wood?

Moisture content is important; the lumber needs to be neither too wet nor too dry, otherwise splitting will occur. This is where experience working with lumber is very important. Moisture meters will one day be an important part of wood-frame construction work, when they become affordable (the $50 price point, approx. 10 years from now). "K.D." as marked or kiln-dried studs are prone to splittng with the nailing schedules used in seismic work. Good builders will select lumber for moisture content.
For those property owners considering having a company install just anchor bolts and framing, then completing the retrofit at a later time: this is not a good idea. The framing will become very dry in just a few weeks during the warmer months; this might result in rampant splitting when the shearwall panels are nailed on. Many companies will proceed to drive nails through bone-dry (& large grain) framing lumber, without removing a panel or two to check for split or ruined framing; this means nobody knows if the work will provide sufficient resistance to earthquake forces. A conscientious seismic builder in this age of very large-grain lumber that dries and splits easily will not operate in this manner. Remember that the framing work you pay for can become worthless just a few weeks after it is put up unless the shear walls go up shortly after the framing work is done.

TOP OF LIST What is the typical delivery charge for lumber?

The lumber yard will typically charge $90 for delivery to a job. However, in a competative market, ask for a mid-week, off-hour delivery time (some yards will do this). Also, some lumber yards won't charge for a delivery when it is local, such as Beronio Lumber, which delivers free to most of SF, and Ashby Lumber, which delivers free to the Ashby flats area. Also, larger orders can sometimes have the charges waived; ask an experienced builder whom to contact at local lumber yards.

TOP OF LIST What kind of nails should I use?

Senco nails are the only ones I trust, & they are the only ones we use @ ECS. Cheap nails made in China (some large lumber houses sell them) have no long-term performance history. I have seen some off-shore built nails where the heads would separate from the shanks in a surprisingly high percentage of fasteners. The Simpson Strong Tie N-10 nail is the best nail of that type and has been a hallmark of ESC work for decades. There is a distinctive logo on the N-10 nail head. ECS also recommends the N-10 for joist hanger nails. These galvanized nails are not inexpensive, yet they offer many quality traits such as very good resistance to corrosion.
You might have seen a warning out at lumber yards to use special bolts, nails and other fasteners in today's lumber; this is because the new Green alternative lumber is much more corrosive to metal fasteners (such as bolts and nails), so the fasteners you use must be galvanized. They are much more expensive: a standard 5/8" anchor bolt is $2.00, while the galvanized product is closer to $10.00. Remember that the new pressure-treated sill plates rquire a galvanized nail, as the standard 'bright' nail will corrode quickly in the now code-required pressure-treated lumber. Go to the
Simpson website for more information.
Vinyl coated nails (sinkers) go in very easily; conversely, they slip out well also. Vinyl coated nail are are frowned on by city building inspectors and most experienced builders. There is also a relatively new type of nail with a painted head on it with purple and green paints for different lengths. Those fasteners may not be appropriate where there is high humidity, such as under leaking porches. The paint has been seen to run in color, then the nail head rusts. There are many specialty nails to use (such as galvanized) in damp or pressure-treated lumber.

TOP OF LIST I am trying to use a gel epoxy to secure my anchor bolts, but it is very stiff and slow to come out of the tube; what can I do about this?

Warm the gel tubes up for about an hour before use, either by placing on top of a water heater tank, or close to a halogen work light. You might also get better results from using other brands (besides Samson). Also make sure to use the large-diameter nozzles, as the small nozzles are too restrictive. Pourable, two-part mixable epoxies can work well also, and can be had for around $125/gallon, about half the price of the gel epoxies. For critical uplift loads in engineered work (on complex buildings) we add aggregates to our epoxies also. Commercial and large-scale users of epoxy will use large, pneumatic-powered cartdge guns that take large-diameter cartridges. This additional expense is justified for work on apartment buidlings, but not for single-family residential work. And there are differences in the dispenser - caulking type guns are required for 'Gel'-type epoxies. A hands on class (such as the one offered by the Berkeley Education Center (BEC) do a good job of explaining the benefits of different epoxy types.

TOP OF LIST When I walk around the perimeter of my property I see little bugs flying out of the ground. What are they?

Most likely they are either flying ants or termites; to learn how to deal with common pests, take a ‘Home Maintenance’ class at any small local teaching shop such as the BEC in Berkeley. If you need to take action right away, call a reputable local exterminator.

TOP OF LIST When nailing lumber, what is the difference between ‘checking’ and ‘splitting’?

It is best to confer with some seasoned builders to get a feel for the distance between checking and splitting. Modern large-grain lumber can check like crazy away from the nail entry point and still be structurally sound.
When in doubt about the condition of the lumber, pre-drilling of the nail holes is often required. This is one more reason to avoid the lowest cost bid. It is not unusual to see Hurricane or 'L' reinforcing angle straps that re nailed to lumber with splits extending out from the large-diameter nail holes. Some buildings that are very sun-baked will require pre-drilling. Buildings that have hot water heaters very close to the framing (such as a boiler room) will also require most of the framing to be pre-drilled, otherwise there will be rampant splitting of the existing lumber.

Again, only a builder with experience will be able to ascertain this.

TOP OF LIST What are the differences between using A-35 or L90 clips?

Two widely used reinforcing shear clips are the Simson LS-90 and the A35. With today's large-grain building lumber, you need to avoid 'toe nail' connections (where nails are driven into the wood at an angle, sometimes near the edge). Toe nail connections can lead to grain splitting and ruined lumber, so always drive nails into the wood at an angle of 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the grain of the lumber. As such, I recommend using L-90 shear clips, as they have nail holes over 1 1/2" away from the fold. In 2009 the LS series of shear clips cost around $3.00 at Home Depot. NOTE: Use a palm nailer, such as the Dan-Air brand, to install L-90's, as it easily allows work into snug locations such as joist bays.

TOP OF LIST I want to replace the exterior siding on my property using screws; what type do you recommend?

None; your wood-frame building is put together with nails, because in addition to tensile strength, nails are ductile (they can be bent back and forth repeatedly without failing). This is desirable, since your wood-frame building moves for various reasons: wind loads, settling, and of course, seismic events. Screws have great tensile strength for resistance to pull-out force, yet when bent just 10 degrees and returned to 0, most screws will break.

TOP OF LIST I want to protect my hearing; what should I use?

Loud, low frequency sounds such as jackhammers or rotary hammers (for boring holes into concrete) require both a foam insert and a full circumaural outer set of headphones, whenever possible.

Questions to Ask a Potential Builder

TOP OF LIST   What type of plywood do you use? What does CDX mean? How many layers of plywood should there be?

Lumber such as "Two-By" (2" X), "Four-By" (4" X), etc, is graded for condition. Plywood is graded for appearance and condition. Plywood is graded for finish from “A” to “E”. Some CDX looks B on one side and E on the other, while a lot of it looks like E on both sides. Top builders will discard certain sheets of plywood (such as grains running in one direction) to insure that their customers get a quality job. 'CDX' plywood is much different than 'CDX Structural One': with CDX Structural One, the finish is 'C' on one side and 'D' on the other; the glue is exterior (X) type, designed for exposure to the elements. Delamination of 'exterior grade" plywood is not a problem, but CDX plywood can delaminate its layers when wet. Structural one and two are all #1 or #2 hardwood species types. With plain lumber warehouse CDX, there also could be a problem if you drive a nail through the outside lumber layers, as many economy plywood’s have pulp or cellulose in between the plywood layers. It is more important to use Structural One CDX than have a certain number of layers, as the thickness of the plywood is a red herring. For example, 3-ply 3/8" Structural One CDX is stronger than 5-ply 3/4" 'plain' CDX.
Structural One CDX is the best plywood to use for shear wall work. Groups such as the American Plywood Association (also known as the Engineered Wood Group) can offer much more detailed information for existing products and industry standards.

TOP OF LIST   What is the exact drill size for the nails you are using when you pre-drill to prevent splitting?
When dealing with very dry or modern, large-grain framing lumber, the engineer might require the lumber to be pre-bored, since this wood can split with the insertion of a nail no matter how fast or true it is driven. As a rule of thumb use a pre-drill that is about 1/2 the diameter of the nail shank (or smaller). For a nail with a 3/16" shank, uses a 3/32" pre-drill. If your builder does not know what the exact drill-size is, he will probably attempt to weasel a small percentage of splits past the inspector.

Yes, pre-drilling will increase the labor costs of a project; but the costs of re-doing poor work (from the lowest bidder or unskilled labor) will be much higher.

TOP OF LIST   How will you provide electricity for your power tools?
A professional builder will bring in their power from the service drop (the solid pipe where the power lines come into your house from the utility pole). They should attach a GFI (ground fault interrupter) power distribution box. Draping extension cords out of open windows is dangerous and will probably leave more of a mess behind. Older houses often have few (if any) outlets that are safe to handle heavy power loads. In any contract you sign, there should be some detail about how the power will be supplied, whether entry to your dwelling will be required and at what times, etc.

You are paying good money for your work, so it is your right to add anything you want to the contact, or even the margins of the contact. Once the builder accepts the bid, those conditions are binding. Insist that the workmen stay out of the house and keep the dust out of the property by keeping the windows closed.

TOP OF LIST   Where will you/your employees go to the bathroom?
If you are told that all the workmen will just hop around on one foot all day, don’t believe it. By not paying the monthly service charge of about $250/month, your contractor puts that money in his pocket. Beware, as this is often a sign of other cost-cutting methods that will result in less than quality service for you. For the builder who is too cheap to bring in a port-a-john or include one in a bid: check to see that all debris is hauled at the end of the job and not left in the crawl space.

If your builder just brushes off concerns about the workmen, or tries to change the subject, it may indicate the amount of respect the workmen will have for their boss, and for the project in general. And don’t buy into the Global Warming jive should some of the trees in the back yard turn yellow then die off some time after completion of the job.

TOP OF LIST   Is spot repair for dry rot or termites included in the estimate?
I include this wording in my contract – but many builders do not. This then becomes an easy way for a builder to recoup an extremely low bid.

Lowballing is the practice of winning a contract with an extremely low initial cost, then 'discovering' that there is a required repair to complete the work, thus bringing the total job cost more in line with what more honest builders would actually bid. Also, many contracting companies specialize in finding pre-existing conditions that require substantial extra work (above and beyond the scope of the original contract conditions. These companies will then stop work according to the terms and conditions of their duties as 'guardians against bugs', so that, unless an unusually large contract is signed, the work cannot go on (per 'bug control' law). When you are checking referrals, screen for this type of extra work - while no one may want to admit over the phone that their last contractor was much more expensive than they originally planned on, they will often tell you if the project grew from the original plan.

Also, when you hire a termite company to do seismic specialty work, they might not only find flying bugs, they are bound by state regulations for pest work to remove lumber back a certain distance from any damaged areas. A carpenter not bound by those laws may find less work if any to be performed for you.

TOP OF LIST   How long have you been retrofitting homes? How long have your employees worked for you?
Every 5-7 years a builder decides to get into the structural repair/seismic upgrade business, originating in everything from lawn maintenance to mattress testing. Many don’t realize how difficult it is to do quality work on old, wood-framed buildings, and that their employees must first apprentice for 3-6 months, so they wind up going back to their kitchen remodeling or lawn maintenance business. My standard for hiring crew members has been to require a minimum of six months experience. I consider someone who has completed a minimum of 100 supervised jobs to be a seismic safety experienced builder. Also: anyone with workmen should be able to name the men who will be doing the work.

When talking to builders, take a look at their hands. If you don't see some splinters or calluses, chances are you won't ever see them on the job again. A primer for new homeowners would to watch the movie “The Money Pit” with Shelly Long the actress. It was very popular and dealt with armies of unsupervised builders in a property needing some work. If you see the movie, try to spot the general contracter character. This can be an educational film.

TOP OF LIST   Have you ever had to correct your own work? What were the problems with it?
While there may have been prize fighters who never lost a match, it is extremely rare for a builder to never make a mistake. The builder you may want to choose is the one who did correction work without trying to pass the costs (or blame) to the customer.

Some builders have simply walked away from previous companies names when sub-standard work has found from poorly trained and supervised workmen in their employ. Unfortunately, there is long trail of messed-up work, such as the Berkeley company that, for two years, installed plywood panels with 'bugle head' screws (instead of nails) in many properties there. Using bugle head or any other type of Phillips head screws is a huge mistake that will eventually lead to localized failures of shear walls in any large seismic event. These companies will then simply added 'Inc.' to the company name to avoid doing the proper corrective work: removing the screws and installing ductile nails instead. Work such as this still ranks as some of the worst cover-ups in the seismic industry in the Bay Area. More than one seismic builder has operated like this. The very worst builders are those who threaten to sue the property owners, and, in general, avoid their responsibility to correct their really slipshod work; some even have fled out of state where they cannot be served for CA small claims actions or CSLB actions.

When mistakes are brought to light, a good builder will do the upgrade work for a fair trade price, or correct mistakes for a fair trade cost, usually without making a profit on the job. Earthquake Construction Service/J. Gillett had some workmen who, after the Loma Prieta event, would regularly over-drive a percentage of nails beyond the outside boundary layers. This meant returning to three job sites and removing/replacing the plywood, primarily for looks. In a stand-up basement, looks are important. ECS/J. Gillett has also diligently tried to contact all customers who only contracted for anchor bolts in the 70's and early 80's, as this is a false insurance: in a large event, only the mud sill will be held in place and the rest of the stud wall can still fail.

On the other hand, the seismic field is filled with people writing blogs from their mother's basement outside of Tulsa, claiming to have sold their business to a local builder, who now supposedly has the equivalent experience of someone who has actually been doing seismic work since the 1906 quake. And beware the builders’ who employ very suave salespeople.

TOP OF LIST   Are you a member in good standing of the Contractors State License Board (CSLB)?
Always verify the answer on the CSLB website ( CSLB ), or call them @ (800) 321-CSLB. In the event that you have problems with your contractor, the CSLB can be invaluable in resolving them. The CSLB is like a big wheel: it moves slowly, but it is bound to cover a lot of ground. Complaints are responded to with forms, and, after some time, an inspection of your claim. Sometimes, after finding a problem with the work, the original builder will be offered the chance to fix the problems or pay for them. While some careless builders may discard CSLB mailings, the CSLB letterhead gets the attention of each and every licensed builder in the state. The CSLB just may be one of the best-performing state agencies we have.

And, of course, the CSLB is always interested in people representing themselves as state licensed & bonded contractors when they are not. Let them know about builders skirting city permit requirements and other professional building standards. The bad builders you help corral out of the repair pool may save poor or bad work from other fine buildings besides your own.

TOP OF LIST   Have you ever worked for State or local government in the Expert Witness Program?
Good builders are asked not to advertise this qualification, yet, when asked, they can explain the program for you. The Expert Witness Program is a service offered to property owners by the Contactor’s State License Board (CSLB). The CSLB moves slowly yet in a steady pace to completion. Resolution of problems is their code. It is one of the better performing agencies we have.

TOP OF LIST   How many workmen does your company have? Will you actually be working on the job?
Seismic work is usually in hard-to-access crawls spaces and muddy basements. So it is pretty common for builders to hire workmen and not do much or any of the work themselves. The problem is that builders with crews will often rush work; they cannot allow premium hand-fitting work to happen, as this translates to greater crew hours, and more workman's compensation insurance costs (for every $100 earned by the workmen, the law states that $25 or more must be paid per workperson to the State Compensation Board fund).

On the other hand, building contractors working by themselves are self-insured and bonded by the state. They will take the time to do the job right. In any type of basement where the work will be viewed by people, the single-person seismic contractor is the best bet for work that is high quality and sharp looking.

When a customer has time, a builder with great experience and pride-of-work can be found to do seismic retrofits. Make sure to shop for any and all work for your property. Taking the time to vet the bids for good material and current references is often hard tedious work. Generations from now, the future heirs of your property will be grateful for you diligence.