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Earthquake awareness ramps up seismic retrofitting business in Portland



In an earthquake, the biggest risk to the most homes with the greatest potential for costly damage is where the house’s framing meets the foundation.

SUBMITTED: GOOD ENERGY RETROFIT - Good Energy Retrofit installs metal foundation plates locking the wooden house structure to the concrete foundation, a missing element in many pre-1975 homes.

While changes in Portland’s city code show that nobody cared about that until recent decades, earthquake awareness is ramping up business for seismic retrofitting contractors in Portland.

Kris Grube is the owner of Good Energy Retrofit, a Portland-based, MWESB-certified seismic retrofit contractor. She runs a three-person crew who work on seismic safety and energy efficiency.

“We have definitely seen an increase in demand for seismic work over the last year, and general Cascadia Quake awareness has increased dramatically,” Grube said. “In fact, there is more demand than we can keep up with on the bidding and assessment side.”

Grube’s business is usually booked six to eight weeks in advance, completing about one seismic improvement job each week. Her business also does renovations and energy-efficient remodels, but has seen a huge increase in the seismic side this past year.

“It might be like 50 percent of my business this year doing seismic work, when maybe it was 20 percent in previous years past. You could probably say my seismic work has tripled,” Grube said. “If I want more opportunities they are there for me to have, I am just not taking them because they are too much.”

Steve Gemmell is the owner of Earthquake Tech, a Portland-based seismic upgrade business he started in 1999. He saw demand swell in 2004 after the 9.1 magnitude Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the 2007 6.7 magnitude Gisborne earthquake off the coast of New Zealand and the 7.0 magnitude earthquake near Japan last year.

“Then the New Yorker put that article out last (summer), and it just lit the field on fire, my God we’ve been coming on like gangbusters,” Gemmell said.

Gemmell’s crew is working on four houses a day, booked out for two months. He now has 20 employees, but before the New Yorker article published, he had nine. Recently, his company started getting into the commercial game, branching out from residential.

Both contractors complete seismic retrofits, which connects the concrete foundation to the wooden structure of the house.

Top concerns

If a house is not bolted to the foundation, it’s at risk of bouncing or sliding right off.

“When this happens, the likelihood of a house requiring demolition increases dramatically,” Grube said. “If a house can simply stay connected to the foundation during an earthquake, then there is a possibility of doing repairs on the house without having to proceed to total demolition — not to mention that a life might be saved.”

The second-highest concern is houses with cripple walls, or short walls built between the poured foundation and the first floor.

“These walls are very vulnerable parts of a house in an earthquake, and it’s relatively easy to shore them up,” Grube said. “I think that name must have come from the fact that in an earthquake, these walls simply buckle, crippling the house.”

Bolting the house to the foundation wasn’t in Portland’s city code until 1976. Bolting isn’t considered new-build seismic code, but it wasn’t until 1995 that Portland adopted real seismic codes, which have been systematically updated as recently as 2015.

According to the city, this is a danger that applies to about 100,000 homes built before 1974 that are vulnerable to structural failure in the event of an earthquake.

Gemmell said people began going through the motions of putting seismic reinforcements in place, without following the spirit of the law.

“When I go into a house, any older home that’s had an addition put on in the ’80s or even in the ’90s, I’ll go in and make sure it was done right,” Gemmell said. “People really didn’t start taking it seriously for some time.”

JULES ROGERS - Gemmells team retrofits a 1907 basement along Southeast Lafayette Street.

Portland’s prescriptive pathway

The city allocated $500,000 in federal funding to seismic strengthening, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and in partnership with nonprofit Enhabit. The funds helped reinforce 150 homes.

“Basically, engineering guidelines have been created to address the most common seismic vulnerabilities in a home, and the most potentially damaging to the greatest number of homes,” Grube said. “It’s a great thing that the city has brought this option to Portland, as it makes basic seismic retrofit affordable and accessible for Portland homeowners.”

It’s part of Oregon’s resilience plan to reduce risk and improve recovery in the event of the next Cascadia earthquake and tsunami, penned in 2013 by the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Committee.

“In this approach, a house has to meet specific existing structural guidelines for this pathway to be appropriate,” Grube said. “Anything else needs custom engineering, and we refer that out.”

Gemmell works on homes dating from the late 1800s to the 1990s.

“We’re going into these old, 20th-century clay block or brick warehouses and fixing those as well ... people are buying these things without tearing them down and want to use them, and the city is requiring a seismic upgrade,” Gemmell said. “Banks are actually requiring that as well, a bank doesn’t want to loan against a building that’s going to fall down.”

He often uses SR walls (seismic rehabilitation) from Portland-based SR Contractors.

JULES ROGERS - The cripple walls, shown as the short plywood layer surrounding the window above the concrete foundation, in the 1907 Lafayette Street home are reinforced by Earthquake Tech at every stud.

“The SR walls are very cool, it brings the foundation up to literally today’s foundation code and you can live inside the house, and still dig down,” Gemmell said. “That allows you to come in and reinforce an existing old wall, a turn-of-the-century wall, and lets you bring it up to today’s code.”

For a simple open basement bungalow, Gemmell estimates it can cost approximately $3,000. For a ’60s daylight ranch with a lot to disassemble, it can cost $8,000.

The main determining factor is the strength of the concrete, most old homes’ weakest point.

“It really boils down to the quality of the foundation at hand. If your foundation isn’t shot, we can connect to it with these standard-issue seismic retrofit brackets that make the connection from the foundation up into the wood structure,” Gemmell said.

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Good Energy Retrofit

Kris Grube’s first job as a teenager was in construction. “I helped family friends remodel their basement, and haven’t stopped working on old homes since,” Grube said.

She pursued social work for a stint, feeling out her passion for contributing to the community, but found “my true passion was rehabilitating older (pre-1970) homes and I wasn’t able to ignore my entrepreneurial drive.”

In 2003, she started her small remodeling business, which quickly turned full-time. In 2008, she changed its focus from remodeling to energy assessment and efficiency retrofits for older homes.

“Soon after, I realized I was addressing parts of the home that needed to be seismically retrofit, and was at times installing air sealing and insulation that would need to be removed in order to do seismic retrofits,” Grube said.

“I love learning and have little patience for not knowing how to do things right,” Grube said. “So like a dog with a bone, I was determined to understand what it meant to do a seismic retrofit.”

In 2012, she began adding seismic foundation bolting to her projects.

“Doing basic seismic retrofits simply completes my whole-house approach to caring for old homes,” Grube said. “When I assess a home, I look at the energy-related components such as insulation, air leakage, heating and water heating efficiency, but I also look at issues related to the home’s durability, safety and indoor air quality.”

Earthquake Tech

Steve Gemmell, originally from Chicago, moved to Portland in 1994 to paint his sister’s house.

“I painted through high school and college to make money. My sister had a house here that she bought and needed a paint job,” Gemmell said. “So going thru my early-life existential crisis of what the hell am I going to do, it seemed like a pretty good thing to start with.”

He job-searched for an entire year before committing to his contractor licence, bond and insurance in 1995 — the same year he bought himself a fixer-upper.

“Through opportunity, I was able to become a remodeler,” Gemmell said.

Gemmell said it was his dad who tipped him off to earthquake awareness.

“My dad, somehow he knew about this Cascadia fault line — he had a very large cranium,and so he said ‘you ought to get earthquake insurance,’” Gemmell said.

He called State Farm and bought earthquake insurance over the phone. He remodeled the home, refinanced it and bought another one in 1999.

“I called State Farm to get the earthquake policy and he asked me if my house was bolted down,” Gemmell said. “And I didn’t know what that meant. I’m just a guy from Chicago, my house is here, you know? It certainly didn’t look like it was going anywhere.”

He called the engineer he’d been working with on the second remodel, who told him what bolting is and how it’s done.

“So, the lightbulb went on and I directly mailed all the insurance agents that I could immediately, saying I do seismic retrofitting,” Gemmell said.

He slowly and surely transitioned into the seismic retrofitting realm, continued to remodel as business ramped up.

“We remodeled for quite some time while we did this earthquake retrofitting thing. People here were really skeptical, looking at me like I was crazy or selling snake oil,” Gemmell said.

His business now focuses on seismic retrofitting, foundation repair and structural remodeling.

“What all these older homes are missing is any connection from the wooden structure of the house, down to the concrete foundation, so there’s nothing there,” Gemmell said. “With a simple earthquake, a nice little jolt, it’ll slip right off.”

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