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Phone: 503-823-7300

Email: bds@portlandoregon.gov

1900 SW 4th Ave, Portland, OR 97201

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Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Buildings – FAQ

The following Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and responses have been developed to answer some of the more common questions about URM buildings and what the City is doing to address potential harm they can cause in the event of an earthquake.

What is a URM building?
URM stands for unreinforced masonry. URM buildings are often made of brick or stone, constructed before 1960, and lack the steel reinforcement and structural connections necessary to withstand an earthquake. The Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS) estimates Portland has over 1,650 URM buildings based on an assessment completed in 2016.

What happens to a URM building during an earthquake?
When the ground shakes during an earthquake, numerous examples from around the world show URM buildings are likely to partially or completely collapse. When they collapse, these buildings harm residents and people in the surrounding area. A few recent examples of earthquakes include: Italy (2016), Christchurch, NZ (2011), Napa, CA (2014), Scotts Mills, OR (1993), and Nisqually, WA (2001).

Why does Portland have so many URM buildings?
Although Portland is in earthquake country, scientists didn’t fully understand the danger to the area until the 1980s and 90s. And unlike other major cities on the West Coast, Portland hasn’t experienced a significant quake over the last few hundred years. Cities in California and even Seattle have fewer URM buildings because many structures over the years collapsed during earthquakes, or were later demolished following the quakes.

How do I know if the structure I own, rent, or do business in is a URM building?
There is a searchable map and list of potential URM buildings on the BDS website – www.portlandoregon.gov/bds/urms. If you do not agree with the URM building status, you can provide information to BDS to reconsider the designation. Please contact 503-823-7300 or BDS.URMBuildings@portlandoregon.gov.

If I own a URM building, what should I do?
Currently there are no requirements to retroactively seismically strengthen your entire URM building. However, if you invest in a major renovation, re-occupy a vacant building, or change the use or occupancy of your building, Portland City Code may require you to comply with current seismic regulations, please visit the following site: www.portlandoregon.gov/cidycode/28673.

Why require the retrofit of URM buildings?
URM buildings pose a danger to public safety during an earthquake, risking death or injury, property damage, and loss of economic use. URM buildings are also part of the historic and cultural character of many Portland neighborhoods. Some are designated as historic structures. Retrofitting these buildings will save lives, reduce injuries, and ensure some will remain following a quake. Portland’s current seismic building code, policies, and procedures have not been effective at reducing the risks associated with the city’s stock of URM buildings.

If I retrofit my URM building, will it be able to withstand an earthquake?
Retrofitting doesn’t guarantee a building can be occupied following an earthquake, but in some cases – especially smaller quakes – residents and businesses are able to quickly reoccupy the space. This adds to Portland’s resilience as a community.

What is Portland doing to retrofit URM buildings?
The City of Portland wants to require retrofits to improve your safety during an earthquake and to protect our historic buildings. To address the danger posed by URM buildings, Portland launched the URM Seismic Retrofit Project in 2014 to develop a policy to require the mandatory retrofit of all URM buildings in the city, and develop methods to assist building owners implement the policy. The project is led by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS), and Portland Development Commission (PDC) with leadership from Commissioner Novick’s office and stakeholders from the community.

How long will I have to retrofit my building?
The proposed policy is a tiered approach, requiring some seismic upgrades to critical buildings sooner and to a standard that will enable their use after an earthquake, and lower-risk buildings later and to a more cost-effective standard that will still greatly reduce the danger they pose to the public. All building owners will be required to complete a building assessment within three to five years, based on the URM Class. With the exception of the most critical buildings, owners will typically have 10 years to complete parapet, cornice and chimney bracing and wall to roof attachment; 20 years to complete all bearing and exterior wall to floor attachments and out-of-plane wall strengthening, and 25 years to complete the full retrofit. Details of the proposal and timeline are contained in the URM Seismic Retrofit Project’s report – www.portlandoregon.gov/bds/urms.

Why is an ASCE 41 assessment required?
An American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 41 assessment is a seismic evaluation that identifies the structural deficiencies of the building under seismic loading relative to a performance objective. By utilizing the ASCE 41 standardized approach to assess Portland’s URM buildings, we will be able to identify those URM buildings that pose the greatest risk and consistently implement the seismic retrofit policy. A structural engineer will use this evaluation to devise a building-specific retrofit strategy to achieve the prescribed seismic performance of both structural and non-structural components of the building. In addition, an evaluation by a structural engineer is required to distinguish between URM Class 3 and Class 4 buildings. URM Class 4 buildings are essentially URM Class 3 buildings but qualify for a lower standard of upgrade if they meet certain building characteristics as outlined in the URM Seismic Retrofit Standards report. 

How is Portland proposing to help URM building owners implement the policy?
The proposal suggests the City of Portland work with the Oregon State Legislature to support a program of tax credits for URM building owners, continuing current State funding for school retrofits, extending the implementation timeline for affordable housing retrofits, and establishing an ombudsman to assist building owners in navigating the permitting, financing, and design of retrofits. The Policy Committee was not able to identify any direct financial subsidies to provide to building owners.

What are other cities doing to retrofit URM buildings?
Many cities in California – including San Francisco and Los Angeles – have already enacted policies to require the retrofit of URM buildings. Seattle is currently looking to adopt a policy similar to Portland’s proposed mandatory policy.

Where can I learn more about the proposed policy and provide feedback?
Building owners, tenants, and others interested in this project are encouraged to attend public forums scheduled on September 8th from 6-8 p.m. at the Exchange Ballroom (123 NE 3rd Ave) and September 22nd from 6-8 p.m. at the Portland Development Commission (222 NW 5th Ave). For more information and to provide feedback, visit www.portlandoregon.gov/bds/urms.

When will Council vote on the proposed policy?
After the proposed policy is revised in the coming months based on public feedback, Portland City Council will likely vote on the ordinance before the end of the year.

Questions?
Please email BDS.URMBuildings@portlandoregon.gov or call 503-823-7300.