Steel plates can be used behind an exterior wall to strengthen its connection to the foundation where it meets the first floor.
Steel plates can be used behind an exterior wall to strengthen its connection to the foundation where it meets the first floor.

Bruce Schoonmaker first became interested in seismic retrofits as a concerned homeowner wanting to reinforce his own house. He found he had a knack for it, and started reinforcing buildings professionally. Twenty years later, A-FFIX is still standing in Magnolia.

Schoonmaker was on sabbatical from his position as pastor at Magnolia Baptist Church when he started his home retrofit project.

“I got to talking to one of the owners of the company, and he ended up offering me a job,” he said.

Schoonmaker went on to start his own business in 1999, later adding his son Martin to the A-FFIX family.

“I still do inspections and bidding and all that,” he said.

Schoonmaker participated in a low-income retrofit program funded by FEMA in 2004 that covered several hundred homes.

“But that money ran out, and they said, ‘Don’t expect that to happen again,’” he said.

Project Impact was a short-lived federal initiative that focused on natural disaster preparedness, which meant earthquake reinforcements in Seattle. Former President George W. Bush would later call for the program’s elimination.

The pace of seismic retrofit business comes in waves. When Bush was talking about ending project impact in 2001, Seattle was still recovering from the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake.

“It was all arms and elbows after Nisqually,” Schoonmaker said of the boost to business. “Lots of interest, until 9/11, and then everyone turned away.”

There were earthquakes around the world that drew some attention — in Haiti and Chile — but the disaster in Fukushima, Japan gained more attention due to the added issues caused by the nuclear power plant failure, Schoonmaker said.

Then Kathryn Schulz wrote an article for the New Yorker in 2015 focused on the Cascadia fault line and an impending quake that will devastate the coastal Northwest.

After that, there was a two-year surge in homeowners seeking out Schoonmaker and other seismic retrofit companies, wanting to make sure their houses wouldn’t collapse when the big one hit.

“We’re back down to low again,” Schoonmaker said. “A lot of new homeowners are responding. … They can be at home and have us do that work. We work around people really well.”

At the heart of seismic retrofits is making connections between walls and the foundation, so everything moves together.

One retrofit project Schoonmaker showed Queen Anne News included removing sections of the exterior wall to put bolts down from the wood through the sill plate and into the foundation; large washers cover most of the sill plate. Other parts of the exterior were secured with steel plates that can each withstand 1,300 pounds of lateral force.

At another project a mile away the home had restraining clips, as well as a pony wall to reinforce the connection to the foundation.

“A lot of the strength comes from the number of nails,” Schoonmaker said.

The columns in the basement had post caps on them, and the post bases were attached.

“At the foundation level, 95 percent of the damage in an earthquake occurs,” he said.

Tension ties were used to reinforce the deck, as those are commonly shook off from homes during an earthquake.

Schoonmaker teaches classes on how to retrofit homes as a volunteer with Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management, and also provides a guest lecture to a class from the University of Darby on natural disasters.

The Seattle City Council has for years explored how to mandate seismic retrofits of unreinforced masonry buildings in Seattle. There are more than 1,000 URMs in Seattle the city has identified — apartments, condo buildings, schools and other public facilities. There were nearly 80 in Queen Anne as of April; some have been permitted for upgrades.

The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections expects to have a report that explores financing and funding for URM retrofits completed by the end of the second quarter of this year, according to SDCI customer service manager Bryan Stevens.

Schoonmaker said he hopes the council takes action quickly once that report is provided. He believes making URM retrofits mandatory will require a property tax break to alleviate some of the cost. The City of Berkeley, California has a seismic retrofit refund program for voluntary upgrades to residential properties.

“I wouldn’t expect anything to happen until the city council gets a backbone and makes some hard decisions,” Schoonmaker said.

The city has been preoccupied with the homelessness crisis, Schoonmaker said, but the cost of recovery will be higher if URM retrofits are not completed, and those apartments and condos that come down will mean even more people without homes; those who survive the collapse.

Without financial support, a URM retrofit mandate could also cause more displacement, as many property owners unable to afford the seismic upgrades are expected to sell to developers.

Schoonmaker said he’d like to see property owners granted 13 years to complete their retrofits in stages as the council had previously considered.

“We haven’t really made a dent in what needs to be done,” he said.