What Happens When Seattle Shakes? – Slog

You don't want to be in one of those little yellow spots when Seattle is shaking.

You don’t want to be in one of those little yellow spots when Seattle is shaking. Courtesy of When Seattle Shakes

I think about the really big one all the time. Maybe every day, especially when I’m scared. And if I ever move into a new brick apartment or office, I’ll scroll down the list of unreinforced masonry buildings in Seattle to see if the old building I’m in now could fall during a major quake . (If it’s on the list, it probably is.)

But my earthquake prevention doesn’t get much further than worrying. Unfortunately not in Seattle either. We know we live on “borrowed time” as Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel warned us years ago, but the city hasn’t done enough to prepare for what will happen when its brittle buildings start to close tremble. When I heard about a new online exhibit from AIA Seattle and the Seattle Architecture Foundation, aptly titled When Seattle Shakes, that focuses on unreinforced masonry techniques in cities like Seattle and San Francisco, I called Zoom to speak to the curator of the exhibit to talk about our city and its dangerous stones.

Mary Waelder, exhibition researcher and curator.

Mary Waelder, Seattle Shakes researcher and curator. Photo by CB Bell, courtesy Seattle Shakes

Mary Waelder, the curator of When Seattle Shakes, is a licensed architect interested in making our buildings more quake-resistant. The exhibit, which went online due to the pandemic, is helping educate people about the risks earthquakes pose to buildings and using two case studies from Seattle – Washington Hall and UW’s Suzzallo Library – to examine retrofit solutions. What is important is that Mary’s work advocates a seismic culture that goes beyond denial to become “conscious and productive”.

You see an earthquake upgrade!  (In particular: a finished bat tie in the UWs Suzzallo Library.)

You see an earthquake upgrade! (In particular: a finished bat tie in the Suzzallo library of the UW.) Image courtesy of SHKS Architects

We have cropped this interview for the sake of clarity.

STRANGER: Disassemble it for us: What is unreinforced masonry (URM)?

MARY WAELDER: The city defines unreinforced masonry as follows: It is a building in which the load-bearing walls are made of bricks and this brick has no steel reinforcement. It is not tied to any other type of structure, and since it does not have continuous reinforcement, it risks collapsing, cracking, or falling apart.

Brick is very compressed, but very brittle – it doesn’t have a lot of ductility, which is a structural term for flexibility. That’s part of what does [an unreinforced masonry building] really risky – not only for the building itself, but also for people walking by outside and could be hit by falling bricks or debris.

What makes Seattle particularly prone to earthquakes compared to other seismically active cities you studied, such as San Francisco or Tokyo?

In some ways, Seattle’s overall seismic vulnerability is less than that of these cities, but it’s not just about what’s going to happen geologically. It’s also about what people do to prepare and design their cities.

I would say Seattle has not been particularly proactive in preparing for seismic events. We have tried repeatedly to get regulations on URMs and other hazards in place, and we have not been able to do so. While San Francisco had more notable seismic events than we did, they also managed to retrofit most of their URMs and many of their soft story buildings. In this sense, our preparatory vulnerability is greater.

Steel braces in the Suzzallo Library.

Steel struts in the Suzzallo Library support the building during quakes. Image courtesy of SHKS Architects

What challenges do builders face when they want to retrofit their buildings?

I think knowledge is actually a big one. And that’s part of what I want to address to let people know that this work is being done in the city. There are solutions to some of the challenges they may face with their buildings. Some of them are really complicated. And some of them, if you look at the Washington Hall case study, only use plywood.

In general builders – and when I say builders, I’m not talking about Amazon; I’m talking about small business owners – they face challenges in making decisions. The information is not always clear, people are intimidated to work with it [the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections]and they know that whatever they do will be expensive.

All of these obstacles become motivations to sell or demolish the property. And that’s exactly what I really don’t want to see because it’s not just about the buildings themselves. It’s about the role the buildings play in their neighborhood, and the types of houses they provide for community groups and small businesses that are they can’t necessarily afford it [a building] Otherwise.

For example, let’s say you’re a small business that just moved into a building in Seattle that is having problems with unreinforced masonry or concrete. What limitations or expectations do you face?

There is currently no regulation or mandate to update existing URMs [in Seattle]. That in itself is a problem because the job needs to be done. There are builders out there who volunteer seismic upgrades just to keep people safe in their building. If it’s voluntary, you can choose what level of upgrade you want to do.

Can you talk a little about how racial justice interacts with retrofit policies?

See the exhibition’s Actions and Opportunities page for a story about a billboard ordinance that took place in Portland. Basically, Portland wanted buildings in their city to put up signs or posters on their buildings if they were a URM, saying that the building could collapse in an earthquake. It tried to tell members of the public, “Uh, just so you know you could die here.” The people who had to put up these posters didn’t think it was great. And many of the owners have been historically black churches and other underserved and marginalized communities.

The capital within this parish is not necessarily available to bring the building up to the standard desired by the city. And the reason the capital isn’t available is because the people who are there in the first place have been marginalized for generations by racist land-use practices. So in Portland it was a situation in which people were repeatedly placed in their way and resources were stolen from them. And then the city said, “You have to [make these changes to your building] or we will tell everyone they are going to die in your building. ”

I think what this really shows is that if you are making demands on the people of your city, but are not giving them ways to meet those demands, and you are not providing them with resources or investments, what are you expecting it happens?

While I am campaigning for a URM mandate in Seattle because I believe this is a public safety priority, I also want to ensure that financial incentives are properly considered to support even small things like providing Non-English Translators – Reach out to building owners and potentially cut approval fees for people who need to get the job done.

It’s not that people don’t want their buildings to be secure. It’s expensive and everyone knows it. These costs will overload marginalized builders or pass them on to tenants. It keeps piling up on the people who have the fewest resources.

Portland tried to prepare brick buildings for earthquakes - but at what cost?Portland tried to prepare brick buildings for earthquakes – but at what cost? Sarah Yeoman / The Portland Mercury
You used the term “seismic culture” in the exhibition, which I liked. What kind of seismic culture should we promote in Seattle?

I would love to see a seismic culture that is aware and proactive.

A couple of years ago the Seattle Times published an article about how those old brick buildings in Seattle could basically kill you. That was great because it got a lot of attention on the subject, but it didn’t get implemented. Much of the attention resulted in some kind of alarming or hysterical reaction where people would say, “Oh no, I’m in danger,” but then nothing happens. And then people can only feel better if they somehow forget – which doesn’t solve anything.

If we are in a culture of denial right now, we need to be in a more educated seismic culture so that when a mandate comes in, people will be ready, which must be at some point.

Steel brace frames helped retrofit Suzzallo, as did shear walls and shotcrete.

Steel brace frames helped retrofit Suzzallo, as did shear walls and shotcrete. Courtesy of When Seattle Shakes

Let’s say I’m a Seattle citizen worried about URMs, which is what I am. How do I make my fear productive? How do I go beyond denial as you put it?

There are a few things you can do on a personal level. You can create an emergency preparedness kit. It’s also good to communicate with your neighbors about what you would do if such a disaster occurred. I think people relied on one another for help during COVID, but this goes for any type of situation where you and your community may need shared resources.

You can also communicate with members of the city council or county. King County intends to implement a program called C-PACER, which is a financial mechanism to fund resilience work. It includes work related to sustainability and seismic improvements.

Last words?

I think I’ve said something along these lines, but what we call natural disasters are not just natural events themselves; They are human choices. What we do or don’t do now is part of our next natural disaster – because a natural phenomenon that occurs without affecting humans is not a disaster at all. We are involved in shaping this effect.

Make sure to browse When Seattle Shakes, which is available online here. You can attend a digital curatorial talk with Mary Waelder tonight, Wednesday February 17th, at 6 p.m. RSVP here.