Case 99-2: Considering a Less-Than-Complete Seismic Upgrade

The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between April and June, 1999. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.

Review The Situation:

Golden Years is a nonprofit charitable corporation that runs a home for the elderly. They are the only organization in the community that provides housing and services geared toward middle to low income senior citizens. The home is located in a region of the Midwest that has recently been subject to a much publicized study which indicated that the seismic hazard could be somewhat different from what was previously understood. The region is characterized as having the potential for severe, but very infrequent, earthquakes.

The director of Golden Years, has contracted ABC Engineers to provide a seismic assessment of their facility. While the organization is not required legally to do anything to the building, they are interested in determining whether they need to do anything to improve their seismic safety. After reviewing the building, the engineers conclude that a major rehabilitation is required to provide reasonable life safety protection for the building occupants. The estimated cost of the rehabilitation is $1 million. Upon hearing this, the director informs the engineers that they can only afford about $200,000, but they would like to do something to improve their situation.

What should ABC Engineers recommend?

Response Summary:

Respondents overwhelmingly agreed that a partial upgrade was preferred over doing nothing at all. However, the response was mixed with respect to designing a partial upgrade within the current budget or designing a full upgrade to be constructed in phases as funds become available.

The comments imply that central to this dilemma is the best use of available funds to provide the highest degree of safety. Most readers stated that the primary obligation of the engineer is to clearly present the seismic hazard, the risks associated with the building, and potential mitigation measures so that the owners could make an informed decision based on their own values.

It was noted several times that, since this upgrade is not required by statute, the engineer does not have an obligation to provide a minimum level of safety, but rather, is obligated to serve the desires of his client. Only a few readers felt that the engineer has a professional responsibility to provide a minimum level of safety. Where noted, the reason for this opinion was primarily due of the cost constraints.

No respondents advocated a "full upgrade or nothing" position by the engineers. It was, however, suggested by one respondent that any actions should consider the expected seismic hazard (considering both seismicity and structural deficiencies) compared to the risks to the elderly residents due to the impact of construction disturbances. This reader noted that having to temporarily relocate, etc., could be very disruptive to these residents.

Recommended Actions:

Readers were asked to rate several possible actions – considering the interests of all stakeholders – based on the following scale. The actions are listed in no particular order, and the rating for each action is the average of the ratings gathered.

5 — Strongly Agree 4 — Agree 3 — Neutral 2 — Disagree 1 — Strongly Disagree

  1. Suggest that Golden Years not spend any money on the building until they are able to afford the complete upgrade. In the meantime, ABC will not send them a written report. Average Rating: 1.5
  2. Suggest that the only solution for Golden Years is a complete upgrade and that ABC will have no part of any partial upgrade. ABC intends to send them a written report. Average Rating: 1.6
  3. Suggest that ABC be hired to design a complete structural upgrade but that they will do the documentation so that the work can be performed incrementally. ABC will advise Golden Years on which priorities they should concentrate on first with their $200,000. As additional funds become available, they can do more of the work until the complete upgrade is achieved. Average Rating: 4.2
  4. Suggest that ABC design the best fix possible for $200,000. Inform Golden Years that this will not be a compete upgrade and conceptually outline what could be done further if the funds were ever available. Average Rating: 4.1

Readers were asked what additional information would have put them in a better position to pick an alternative.

Based on the readers’ comments, the following is a listing of relevant information (in no particular order) that would have helped the engineer and their clients make a better decision:

  1. More detailed information on the nature of the building hazard and the probability of earthquake occurrence. Will the limited budget provide a meaningful improvement? Are there other hazards besides strong ground shaking (e.g. liquefaction) for which there would be no partial fix?
  2. Is there other maintenance work planned or needed? Is possible that some seismic work be done in conjunction with the maintenance work? This could provide either additional funding or cost savings.
  3. Information on the impacts of various upgrade schemes on the building occupants. For example, could the real disruption associated with relocating during construction be more difficult for the elderly residents than the potential earthquake hazards?
  4. More information on the possibility of future funding. Depending on the nature of the earthquake hazard and occurrence would it make more sense to put off the work until a more complete upgrade could be funded?

Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the engineers. The following is a brief summary of the suggestions. As is the nature of ethical dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer, and many courses of action could be considered equally valid depending on individual values and/or interpretation of events.

  • No respondent explicitly recommended against the partial upgrade (actions "a" and "b" above). However, there was a fairly even distribution between the nature of the partial upgrade (actions "c" and "d"). In recommending action "d", one respondent noted that the funds spent on designing the future work could be spent on a better current upgrade. Others felt that it was important for the owners to have a complete upgrade designed, but have the work prioritized, so that it could be performed as additional funds become available.
  • While the suggested actions differed, many respondents noted that it is important for the engineers to be very clear with the clients about the expectations associated with any level of seismic upgrade. If a partial upgrade is to be performed, then the owners should be made aware of what is being improved and what risks remain.
  • Some stated that (for a voluntary upgrade) the engineer’s role is not to determine the level of work, but rather, to give the client all the necessary information to make the decision that best meets their needs and constraints.

Comments on Questions for Further Thought:

Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following:

Does a structural engineer have a professional obligation to provide some minimum level of performance by, for example, mitigating all life-threatening hazards in a retrofit design? Or, is a partial upgrade design that minimizes the greatest hazards but may still result with significant life-safety hazards better than nothing at all?

In general, most readers agreed that a partial upgrade can be beneficial, especially in a case where there may be more frequent and less severe earthquakes.Many respondents stated that, in this case, the professional obligation is to present all of the information and options so that the client can make an informed decision. Rather than an obligation to provide a certain degree of safety, the engineer has an obligation to state clearly to the owners both the level of safety that can be expected and the risks that still remain as a result of an upgrade that they (the owners) have chosen.

Some stated that the engineer does have an obligation to design a retrofit to some minimum standard, while others said that the obligation depends on the specific circumstances (e.g. a governing code or ordinance).