BY FRED LEESON
Architects and builders gave no thought to earthquakes in the nineteenth and much of the 20th centuries when they built literally thousands of brick buildings across Oregon.
Now that scientists have learned about tectonic plates under the Pacific Ocean and the likelihood of major earthquakes affecting heavily populated areas of Oregon, those unreinforced masonry structures pose a serious risk to students, residents, office workers and shoppers who use them.
Besides harm to human life, destruction of those buildings would wipe out numerous historic landmarks, the hearts of historic business districts, thousands of low-rent housing units, dozens of schools and the vintage architectural fabric that gives us a sense of place and human continuity.
Can these buildings be “saved” in advance? How to do it? What tools and incentives are needed to upgrade more than 4,800 unreinforced masonry buildings (likely a low estimate) in Oregon?
The Historic Preservation League of Oregon, a statewide preservation advocacy organization, has spent the last year probing those questions and looking for potential answers. “Resilient Masonry Buildings,” the HPLO’s special report (available at historicpreservationleague.org) suggests eight potential steps, ranging from more complete inventories to revised building codes and financial incentives.
“We didn’t solve all the problems,” says Brandon Spencer-Hartle, the HPLO’s field representative who wrote the report after meeting with some 250 interested parties in four locations around the state. “This is just a starting point. We heard a lot of ideas out there.”
Spencer-Hartle said the study looked at more than just seismic issues. He said difficulties with Americans with Disability Act access and internal elevators make many older brick buildings dysfunctional on their upper floors.
The study attempted to get a grasp on the number of Oregon buildings erected with unreinforced masonry. Only Portland and Medford have done inventories, and even those numbers may be suspect. “Without an engineer, it’s hard to determine what is unreinforced masonry and what isn’t,” said Natalie Perrin, a preservationist who worked on the report. Regardless of the number, “It’s a massive amount of square feet,” she said.
An intriguing suggestion raised in the report is creation of a voluntary, standardized ranking system for seismic bracing that would let tenants and prospective building users know how resilient an improved building is. It would be akin to the LEED ranking system for energy and environmental design. “Recognizable plaques placed on the exterior of qualifying buildings would boost public awareness, activate market demand and generate better pay-back for investments in retrofitting,” the report states. Spencer-Hartle said such a rating system is being studied in Northern California, another high-risk earthquake region.
Earthquake bracing is expensive work, especially for being an “invisible” improvement. The HPLO report suggests that new financial incentives are needed to assist building owners, including state, local and federal possibilities. “If it is a public good,” Spencer-Hartle says, “how should public money be directed to preservation?”
One idea is trying to leverage federal FEMA funding – the idea being that repairs now will reduce damage in a future emergency. Spencer-Hartle said Oregon needs to revisit state incentives. At present, owners of designated landmarks qualify for 10-year property tax abatements, with the idea being that money saved on taxes is directed to preservation needs. Spencer-Hartle said the 10-year tax break is inadequate for financing large-scale preservation projects.
Spencer-Hartle said the HPLO will convene meetings in 2013 aimed at exploring rehabilitation incentives in greater detail. In the meantime, the clock is ticking for Oregon’s unreinforced masonry buildings.