By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Sitting in his custom cubicle in a prestigious West Los Angeles engineering firm, Anders Carlson adjusts his glasses and scrolls through the different programs of his laptop. He double-clicks an icon, and a schematic of a large building appears. ”So the subtitle of this is ‘Whacking Steel Buildings,’“ he says as the program begins. Then Carlson sits back, proudly watching what started as his doctoral thesis at Caltech -- a sophisticated computer simulation that demonstrates with remarkable accuracy what happens to steel-frame buildings during an earthquake.
More specifically, Carlson‘s design extrapolates on what did happen during the Northridge quake of 1994. He obtained ground-movement data for a particular building, correlated the structural damage it sustained, and then increased the volume -- from the 6.7 Richter-scale rating that Northridge generated, to the 7.0 that experts are predicting -- to see what would happen.
The results unfold on Carlson’s laptop screen. A 17-story edifice wobbles back and forth like a crude video game. One after another, the joints turn bright red to indicate areas of high stress. Eventually the welded connections crack, the integrity of the structure is compromised, and the top of the building begins to lean, failing to return to center. Carlson breaks into a grin that‘s almost an apology and explains his research in simple layman terms. In a moderately strong earthquake, he says, ”These buildings will probably collapse.“
Across town on the Caltech campus, Professor John Hall, who has spent the past decade studying the motion of steel-frame buildings in earthquakes, affirms the work of Carlson, his former student. ”In a magnitude-7 earthquake, the ground can move back and forth on the order of a meter or more. Those kinds of motion could possibly collapse a good-size steel building.“
Here’s why this should matter to you. There are 10 known fault lines in the L.A. area capable of generating a magnitude-7 quake. There are over 1,500 steel-frame buildings sitting along these lines -- basically every glass-covered high-rise you lay eyes on -- each one crafted with what is now known to be a flawed engineering technique. Specifically, the weld metal holding the structures together is too brittle to bend under seismic pressure -- it cracks instead, often leaving the beam-to-column connections severed.
Damage inflicted by previous quakes has finally persuaded engineering officials to require a more durable weld metal in seismically sensitive zones, but an ominous question remains unanswered: What about the hundreds of fully occupied steel buildings that have already been constructed, looming over Los Angeles like a collective time bomb? What about the welds?
City officials were aware of the inadequate welds within months after the Northridge shaker in early 1994, but their reaction was delayed, halting and piecemeal. Early on, political considerations caused the tower-filled districts of Century City and Bunker Hill to be exempted from the city‘s inspections. The cluster of high-rises in Universal City, which falls under county jurisdiction, somehow managed to escape what is supposed to be a mandatory post-quake inspection for the past three and a half years. And, in a clear indication of the priority of this issue among the people it affects the most, condominium groups from the Wilshire Corridor hired lobbyists to ensure that their buildings would not be subjected to a city inspection. It worked. Which illustrates the point perfectly: Even the people who cook and sleep in these buildings don’t want them fixed.
To date, the sole initiative taken by the city to address this issue has been to require that 250 of the affected area‘s 1,500 steel towers go through a mandatory process of having their welded connections inspected and repaired. But even this emergency ordinance required only that the buildings be restored to their pre-Northridge condition; upgrading the buildings with stronger connections was never even considered. For that matter, the other 1,250 steel-frame buildings throughout the city were never inspected -- even though virtually all were constructed with the same faulty beam-to-column connections.
Why have Los Angeles officials been so reluctant to defuse this catastrophe-in-waiting? Because no one close to the problem can stand the heat it generates. The cost of repairing or retrofitting a single steel-frame building can easily run into the tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the welds in these buildings are so well hidden that a fractured frame can go undetected for years unless and until it is subjected to rigorous inspection -- or rigorous shaking, whichever happens to come first. The cost of a remedy is awesome, the problem is concealed, and the next earthquake is intangible. So the preferred fix has been quite manageable across the board: out of sight, out of mind.
While much time and money has been spent researching the fractured joints of steel-frame buildings, the most difficult aspect of this issue has proved to be the mechanics of human nature. Can local government find a way to effectively balance its concern for public safety with its concern for fiscal stability? A five-story steel-frame building may contain 300 welds -- each weld hidden behind walls, ceilings and in many cases asbestos; each weld costing anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 to inspect and repair. Can politicos force building owners to inspect their property at this cost? What is the price tag on public safety?
The structural deficiencies of steel-frame buildings first came to light in the weeks and months following the Northridge quake. No buildings collapsed, but severely fractured welds were discovered in the exposed girders of buildings under construction at the time, such as the Getty Center and a parking garage in Universal City. In the quake’s aftermath, several industry tests emphasized the fact that the weld metal used to join the heavy I-beam steel girders in these structures was far too brittle to withstand seismic movement. This same weld metal, with the same joint design, was used in almost every steel-frame edifice throughout the quake-prone West for the past 30 years.
By May of 1994, confirmation of the bad news had begun flowing into L.A.‘s Department of Building and Safety. Weld fractures had been identified in 77 steel-frame buildings throughout the Southland. The tally would soon rise to more than 100 buildings. By the end of the year, a total of 32 steel-frame towers in L.A. would be ”yellow-tagged“ -- a ”possible major aftershock hazard“ -- and 10 more would be ”red-tagged“ -- in ”imminent danger of collapse from an aftershock.“ This damage was inflicted by an earthquake considered moderate by all counts, with most of its force actually traveling north into the lightly populated San Gabriel Mountains.
The task of managing this dilemma -- an entire city stuck together with defective glue -- fell into the lap of Richard Holguin, chief of L.A.’s Department of Building and Safety and chairman of the city‘s steel-frame task force. Holguin spent the better part of 1994 trying to convince policymakers that something should be done about this problem. The majority of his pleas fell on deaf ears.
Now, with retirement less than a year away, Holguin seems unable to even convince himself that this is a a real issue. During an interview at his panoramic 10th-floor office in Building and Safety’s downtown headquarters, he recalls in a monotone voice the days after Northridge, now more than half a decade past. ”Buildings have what we call nonconforming rights, to remain forever the way they were originally built. Unless the city or state or some agency passes what we call a retroactive ordinance, all we can require is that the owner go back and repair the building. They could really just re-weld the connections with the same weld material. That‘s perfectly legal. That’s all that‘s required.“
Holguin himself, however, was able to change that. In December 1994, with the backing of the City Council, he banned the old, brittle weld metal from future use in Los Angeles construction. This was only the beginning of what Holguin hoped to achieve. In a clear indication of his early vigor, Holguin took an initial list of 1,200 vulnerable steel-frame buildings to Councilman Hal Bernson -- chairman of the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Earthquake Recovery -- and asked for them to be included in a mandatory inspection and repair ordinance. Recalling the controversy that soon swarmed his proposal, Holguin says, ”The problem we ran into is that it‘s very difficult for a city or a legislative body to require work on a building if you just suspect damage.“
Bernson initially embraced Holguin’s approach and scheduled hearings before his committee. But as the cost implications became clear, an entire community of individual and corporate property owners rallied against it. Skepticism came in a variety of forms, from straightforward concerns expressed by then-Councilman Richard Alarcon, citing the lack of technologically efficient repair methods, to ludicrous claims by then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, accusing Holguin of masterminding a plot to make the engineering community rich. All of the complaints focused on one goal: keeping Holguin‘s ordinance stagnant.
The first brick wall Holguin’s ordinance ran into was erected by the real estate lobby. Influential groups such as the Central Cities Association -- a congregation of downtown building owners -- as well as the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), took the driver‘s seat in directing the council’s steel-frame policy. Real estate investment groups also chimed in, urging restraint. BOMA actually formed a steel-frame task group of its own and had a key member act as a liaison between its group and the city‘s. Its members continuously recommended suspending the ordinance. ”They were very vocal, because of the costs and everything,“ Holguin says.
Asked the association’s current position, BOMA president Jeff Eely says, ”Our organization was never opposed to the repair process; the only thing we were concerned about was making sure the repairs were going to generate results.“
Eely continues: ”The fundamental issue is that buildings are not designed never to be damaged; what they‘re designed to do is be able to safely evacuate people. And even with the damage that occurred in Northridge, that objective was met.“
With the degree of apprehension expressed toward Holguin’s proposal, it‘s no wonder that any idea of upgrading L.A.’s steel-frame buildings has now been completely abandoned. Before it ever reached a committee meeting, Holguin‘s list of 1,200 buildings to be examined for cracks had been whittled down to about 400, ignoring the high-rise areas of Century City and Bunker Hill. Even then, the ordinance was tossed like a hot potato between committee filing cabinets for nearly a year, all because the price of safety was too high.
The charged nature of the politics surrounding the inspection ordinance was aired publicly at a July 1994 meeting of the council’s Earthquake Recovery Committee. Councilman Yaroslavsky took the lead, lambasting city staff and even challenging their motives. ”I want to know exactly how you‘re finding this stuff out,“ he said of Holguin’s damage reports. ”I want to know exactly where you‘ve looked. I want to know how widespread your samples have been, if they’re widespread at all. I want you to be able to answer those kinds of questions here in public at this committee.“
A few moments later, Yaroslavsky continued, ”When you first hear about the steel-frame problem, it‘s kind of ominous. And maybe it is. But what is the worst-case scenario?“
”You could have partial collapses,“ Holguin replied sheepishly.
”Pancaking of a building?“ Yaroslavsky asked with a hint of interest.
”Yes,“ Holguin confirmed.
Yaroslavsky pondered this information for a beat, then fell back into his rant. ”I’m not prepared to approve any ordinance that begins to incur the kinds of costs that this ordinance would apparently impose upon some people, without knowing that there is an overriding public-safety interest . . . To me, I smell a rat. I smell a lot of inspectors, Mr. Holguin, seeing a long-term economic benefit. Retire from the city, go out into the private inspection business, collect a pension and do inspections . . . It‘s great!“
Yaroslavsky had a receptive audience. The gallery at the hearing room was packed with condo owners from the Wilshire Corridor -- located in the councilman’s district. At the end of the meeting, one resident from Yaroslavsky‘s district congratulated him for ”taking this slowly.“ The same resident, a member of the Crown Towers Home Owners Association, was apparently summing up the thoughts of building owners everywhere when he said, ”I think the idea of trying to protect everyone against everything all the time is noble but impossible.“
His words certainly rang true for the owners of the Barrington Plaza, a huge residential apartment complex on the Westside with over 8,000 steel joints inside, who hired George Mihlsten, the influential city-affairs lobbyist for the law firm Latham & Watkins. Mihlsten attended many of the Earthquake Committee meetings, arguing that inspecting a building with a large number of steel connections would be outrageously expensive. ”Almost as expensive as hiring attorneys,“ Bernson quipped back. (Mihlsten declined to return several calls requesting comment for this story.)
Yaroslavsky didn’t bother showing up to the next committee meeting on steel-frame buildings. This time, Holguin confirmed that 90 percent of the steel-frame buildings inspected by his department had sustained severe structural failure in the welded joints. Personnel from top engineering firms in the city made presentations as well, assuring the council that this was a real issue, prompting Councilman Bernson to declare that he was ”extremely alarmed“ by the situation. ”That scares the hell out of me,“ Bernson said in response to figures and pictures that described the city‘s steel-frame damage.
By July, however, Holguin’s ordinance had lost all its political steam. In retreat, still convinced that something should be done, Bernson concluded a July 19, 1994, session by preaching to a choir that didn‘t seem to exist: ”For those of you who are out there, don’t feel that this is the last chapter. Because we‘re not going to give this up.“
The ordinance sat dead for another seven months.
It was the quake in Kobe, Japan -- where several large steel-frame buildings actually collapsed -- that sparked a renewed interest in a steel-frame inspection ordinance. On February 22, 1995, one month after Kobe and more than a year after Northridge, the council approved a version of Holguin’s proposal, written in a language indicative of the situation. It reads that Los Angeles ”is considered by experts to be the most seismically active zone in the country.“ That ”experts expect a massive earthquake on one of the faults under the city within the next 30 years.“ And that ”damage to these welded steel . . . frame buildings could expose occupants of these buildings to a potential life-safety risk in future earthquakes.“
Finally, the action Holguin had been searching for. However, the reality of the ordinance contradicted the council‘s urgent language. Not only did the boundaries of the ordinance -- ”high earthquake damage areas“ -- edge out by a matter of a few blocks the two largest high-rise districts in Los Angeles, the statute’s language also greased the squeaky wheels of Yaroslavsky‘s Wilshire Corridor. Before the ordinance passed, the council elected to exclude residential high-rises altogether.
In a transparent attempt to seem responsible, the council added a clause saying, ”Within 180 days after the adoption of this ordinance, the Department shall report back to the Council with recommendations for the inspection of residential welded steel-frame buildings.“ But according to Holguin, the council had no interest in following through. ”We contacted the appropriate council offices. I’ll leave it at that . . . There was just no response.“ Even though the Wilshire Corridor experienced some of the most severe ground motion in the city during Northridge, the condos there have been virtually forgotten.
Contacted recently and asked his current position, now-County Supervisor Yaroslavsky said he remains reluctant to impose expensive safety measures on condo and apartment residents. He took the same position on a similar measure that would have required retrofitting apartment buildings with sprinkler systems. Such safety improvements can force rent hikes that can push a tenant onto the street, he said. ”It‘s a terrible decision to have to make,“ Yaroslavsky said. ”You have to mitigate safety problems without inflicting irreparable financial damage.“
As for the city’s decision to exclude Century City and a Bunker Hill from the mandatory inspection area, Holguin says it was determined by the steel-frame task force -- based on areas where damage had been reported, and by ground-motion data provided by the state. However, of the more than a dozen professionals who sat on the steel-frame task force who I contacted for this story, none can recall any discussion over drawing the boundaries of the inspection zone. All they can do is speculate: As Jay Allen, a structural engineer who served on the task force, puts it, ”It‘s a major political question. You’re going to have a lot of people fighting who live within the city, because the cost [of retrofitting] is incredible. We know that there will be damage from a Northridge-type event within a few miles of downtown L.A. You can expect a very high level of damage on the pre-Northridge connections, which we know exist throughout downtown L.A.“
If the task force didn‘t exclude the high-rise districts, who did? When pressed a second time, Holguin admits hesitantly, ”After some of the discussions we had with council staff on similar ordinances in the past, it was obvious that there was no way we were going to get support [for certain areas]. Especially for downtown buildings.“
So the decision was political? Holguin insists that the Northridge ground-motion data did not suggest that either area had been hit very hard. But Tony Shakal of the state Department of Conservation, who provided Holguin with Northridge ground-motion data, says he supplied information only on specific areas requested by the city. ”They would work on that [information] with their committees, and then they would come back with new requests,“ he says during a phone interview from his office in Sacramento. Expanding this point is David Bonowitz, an engineer in Northern California who was one of two men who compiled a list of steel-frame buildings damaged by Northridge. ”Why did we not find damage downtown? Because nobody looked for damage downtown,“ he says flatly. ”Nobody did a commensurate search in the buildings downtown. So of course no damage was found there.“
Meanwhile, a mandatory county inspec-tion ordinance, passed in January 1996, a year after the city’s, has yet to take effect at all. In the months following Northridge, the prominent L.A. engineering firm of Brandow and Johnston repaired major steel-frame damage in two buildings on the Universal Studios lot -- the largest complex of steel buildings under county jurisdiction. One of those buildings was actually the place where weld fractures were first discovered in L.A. But the firm was never commissioned to inspect or repair any of the other steel-frame buildings on the lot. Now, five years later, Universal has a contract with a new engineering firm, but most of the steel-frame structures on the Universal lot, including Universal City Walk, still have not been inspected.
As it turns out, according to Chapter 94 of the Los Angeles County Building Code, the county Department of Building and Safety should have served the entire Universal lot compliance notices for steel-frame inspection and repair in January 1996. Three and a half years later, the county has yet to send a single one.
If you climb the ridges behind the Griffith Observatory and look across the L.A. basin toward the sea, the issue stands out clearly. To your left, you see the spiking downtown skyline, skyscrapers clustered shoulder to shoulder; look to your right, and the high-rises of Century City jut into view. These are the steel-frame hubs in L.A., and these are the districts that were exempted from the city‘s inspection ordinance.
There is no scientific reason for deciding not to inspect all of L.A.’s steel-frame buildings. There are only political fears. Bernson, who was a staunch supporter of Holguin‘s ordinance after Northridge, dodged several interview attempts for this article, because, according to his press secretary, he did not want to be perceived as instigating the steel-frame issue. He finally made time for a few brief comments during a council meeting, where he said Holguin was solely responsible for the ordinance and its boundaries. He could not even recall the recommendation in the ordinance that residential buildings be examined 180 days after the initial group.
It’s not hard to imagine why the steel-frame issue has lost all of its support. Earthquake safety is an intangible entity, which doesn‘t go far in a political arena of fixed costs. After the Sylmar quake in 1971, the L.A. Times reported that a large portion of welded steel-frame connections in the ARCO Tower -- at that time under construction downtown as the largest building in L.A. -- had cracked ”as a result of the quake.“ The welds were all fixed without further discussion. But in this context, consider a Bernson rumination about cracked steel buildings at one of the 1994 Earthquake Committee meetings. ”Let’s say we go to the ARCO Towers and we find that there‘s joint damage there. What are we going to do? Evacuate the building? Put all those people out of business? This is like Pandora’s box. You pull the top off, and you don‘t know what’s going to come out.“
The answer, instead, has been to keep the top on. Five years after seismic safety in Los Angeles lost out to the prosperity of its building owners, it‘s almost amusing to count the ways in which this issue has been neglected. Engineers are even raising doubts about the integrity of the process used on the 250 buildings that Holguin did manage to get inspected.
Peter Maranian, an engineer at Brandow and Johnston, is also the acting chair of the Structural Engineers Association of California, one of the premier seismic-policy groups in the country. In compliance with the city ordinance Maranian has worked on the inspection and repair of more than 15 steel-frame buildings. He has in his possession entire pieces of vertical columns that have been removed from steel-frame buildings -- pieces previously held in place only by the weight of the structure on top.
”We’ve found columns that have been cracked at the bottom all the way through and cracked at the top all the way through. So you end up with the column in three pieces,“ Maranian says soberly. ”It‘s still standing up; the load above is just going through a cracked joint.“
Not surprisingly considering the financial stakes, many of those involved are dodging the question of defective welds. Let’s start with the city ordinance -- Holguin‘s ordinance. When asked, Holguin assures that owners of all the 250 buildings included in the ordinance area had either complied -- an expensive process that requires stripping away plaster and sheet rock to expose the underlying welds -- or had the buildings vacated. But the department’s most recent records indicate that four and a half years after the ordinance took effect, there are still 12 buildings whose owners have yet to complete their inspections and repairs.
Among them is the Trident Center, located at 11355 W. Olympic Blvd. A a 10-story structure with a total of 1,300 welded joints, this tower was first inspected back in early 1995. A total of 449 welds were inspected, and of those, 112 were damaged. The ordinance states that the work should have been done by 1997, but the Trident Center is only just beginning the repair process. The building is still open, still chock-full o‘ unsuspecting citizens -- most of them attorneys.
Jerry Kaufman, who manages the Trident Center for the owners, says the repairs are now scheduled to be completed by year’s end. They were delayed so long, he says, because the owners had no insurance and no idea where to get the funds needed -- close to $9 million. ”That‘s painful under any circumstance,“ Kaufman says. ”But it was pretty badly damaged, too. There’s no question about it, there‘s damage here.“
The Marathon National Bank building, which is just down the street from the Trident Center, was vacated in November 1994, when an excessive amount of damage was discovered. That building eventually had all 920 of its joints inspected, and out of those, 259 were repaired. City officials close to these Westside projects are reluctant to comment, but one admits anonymously, ”I don’t understand why in one building everybody leaves, and in the other, like the Trident Center, everybody stays.“ Another official says he doesn‘t see the sense in excluding Century City from the inspection area, when these Olympic Boulevard properties, just down the street, were so badly damaged.
Even buildings that have complied with the ordinance are not necessarily safe. For instance, ordinance ”modifications“ were granted to several building owners; if an engineer hired by a property owner vouched that the damage suffered was structurally insignificant, Building and Safety would sign it off.
Consider the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which is currently closed for renovations. In one of the two Galleria buildings, there are a total of 1,100 welded joints. One hundred nine were inspected, and 31 were damaged -- close to a third. In December 1996, Englekirk and Sabol, a prestigious engineering consultant firm, inspected the building and wrote, ”The lateral load-resisting capacity of the structure has been degraded. We recommend that all damaged connections be repaired . . . The seismic risk increases as time lengthens.“ This is about as excitable as engineers get.
But in February 1997, Building and Safety staff sent the owner a modification notice that granted ”approval to not repair the defective connections.“ This particular notice is actually signed by Richard Holguin. Asked about the Galleria, Holguin says, ”There’s no way I could comment on that building, ‘cause I really don’t remember.“ Lawrence Ho, the engineer in charge of the Galleria account for Englekirk and Sabol, does remember. He says that upon further consideration and further research, the firm changed its mind -- er, its professional opinion. Ho won‘t go into details, however, stating, ”It’s a very sensitive issue to the building owner.“ The building owner, the Douglas Emmett Realty Group, one of the city‘s largest property owners, declined to comment.
Universal City represents a special case. The oversize film-studio fun house and the other high-rises that straddle the Cahuenga Pass lie in unincorporated territory, under the jurisdiction of L.A. County. It’s home to a parking garage where the first steel-frame damage in the city was discovered, as well as to another steel-frame high-rise that was inspected and repaired shortly after Northridge. Yet most of the other susceptible buildings on the Universal lot have yet to be inspected, even though a mandatory county inspection-and-repair law was passed in January 1996.
John Kelly, the county‘s superintendent for building and safety, is in charge of monitoring Universal’s compliance, or lack thereof. Kelly knows exactly how difficult it can be to examine the connections of a steel-frame building; his own office, in the headquarters of the L.A. County Department of Public Works, was mutilated by an inspection crew. That building, incidentally, towering over Alhambra like a giant glass Rubik‘s Cube, did not have cracked welds in the inspected areas, but the welds were of such poor quality that the inspectors launched a further investigation, which is still under way.
Kelly strolls the halls of his department with the apparent conviction that the steel-frame issue is of little real concern. When I ask about Universal’s noncompliance with the mandatory county ordinance, he casually replies that the only entity familiar with the status of Universal‘s compliance is Universal. Or, in Kelly’s exact words, ”They‘re the keeper of those keys.“
When I ask why Universal was never issued formal compliance orders, Kelly turns defensive and explains that formal compliance orders are never issued when Building and Safety is well-acquainted with the owner in question. ”Compliance orders are used when you have no knowledge of who the owner is,“ Kelly says. ”You’ve never met them, you have no idea who they are, they could be out of state, you send this formal notification.“
This was not the case with Universal. Posters from the studio‘s movies decorate the halls outside his office, and Kelly emphasizes his own direct contact with Universal executives. ”I’ve had personal meetings with the top management of Universal,“ Kelly explains. ”And I told them, ‘Listen, the only reason I’m not giving you these formal compliance orders with a deadline is because you‘re working with us. If at any time you stop working with me, I’m going to issue this order, and you‘re gonna have a deadline.’“
But Kelly can produce no evidence that Universal has been working with him. In fact, when I ask for any document at all describing the status of Universal‘s steel-frame buildings, Kelly can only reply, ”I don’t really have anything to show you. I mean, they haven‘t submitted plans yet.“
The one thing Kelly can point to is the fact that in March 1999 -- coincidentally the same time the Weekly ran several articles about the steel-frame issue in L.A. -- Universal hired the engineering firm John A. Martin & Associates to conduct a survey of the buildings on the lot. Barry Schindler, the Martin executive in charge of Universal’s account, admits that several of Universal‘s steel-frame buildings, including some in CityWalk, have not had their welded joints inspected. But that’s all the firm is willing to say. For more information they, like Kelly, suggest contacting Mark Lyum, a vice president at Universal. Lyum did not return numerous phone calls, although an appointee from his office did finally return a call to declare that Universal Studios has no comment on the matter.
While neither the county nor Universal can produce any documents regarding the status of these buildings, Kelly has no problem assuming that they are safe. ”If we had any building under our jurisdiction that was in danger of collapse or severe structural failure, we‘d red-tag the building. We have no problem with doing that,“ he says.
Of course, the law requires inspections, and it’s Kelly‘s job to see it through. But in the end, who’s counting? Remember: out of sight, out of mind. ”The district attorney has one guy assigned to us for every violation in the entire county,“ Kelly says. ”It‘s not a high thing for the D.A. to pay attention to. And the courts don’t like to see it at all.“
At the root of this complex issue is a simple, inanimate substance -- a cheap-and-easy weld metal called E70T-4, manufactured and marketed almost exclusively by a multibillion-dollar company in Cleveland called Lincoln Electric and used for the past 30 years in nearly all steel-frame construction in the U.S. The cracks in steel-frame buildings start in the heart of this brittle weld material, sometimes even without the stress of an earthquake.
Tests were done on E70T-4 connections as far back as the 1960s. Many of these laboratory examinations found cracking at very low levels of stress. However, says Caltech‘s John Hall, the fractures were assumed to be flaws in the welding technique, not in the weld metal itself. Unfortunately, the tests were never seen as an indication of what might be happening in the field. ”Somehow, they weren’t making that connection,“ Hall says. That oversight served Lincoln well, since E70T-4 is by far the cheapest way to construct a building.
”It just caught on, became the thing to do,“ says Hall. ”And the underlying reason is because it‘s cheaper. But it was only cheaper because they were not really paying enough attention to doing it properly.“ And no one, so we are to believe, noticed a thing, until the Northridge quake made the problem too obvious to ignore.
Since Northridge, Lincoln has had 20 separate lawsuits filed against it by building owners, each trying to hold the company responsible for a history of ignoring E70T-4’s faulty nature (Universal is one of the plaintiffs). All of the suits are either pending, have been settled out of court or were voluntarily dismissed. Meanwhile, Lincoln Electric refuses the notion that E70T-4 is to blame for this mess. Though the product has been banned from future construction in the city and county of Los Angeles, and despite a small warning label, it‘s still on the market throughout the world.
Attorney George Soneff hopes to put Lincoln and its product in front of a jury for the first time later this year. Filing on behalf of a Westside building owner, Soneff and his partners, Craig Collins and Richard Norton, will ask the Los Angeles County Superior Court to force Lincoln Electric to pay in excess of $20 million in compensation to the citizens of Los Angeles. Soneff plans to argue that Lincoln Electric should send warnings to building owners, inspect all welded steel-frame structures in Los Angeles to determine if they were constructed with E70T-4, and if it’s found, gouge out the brittle weld metal and replace it with a stronger product.
Unless that or some other litigation changes the picture dramatically, however, the E70T-4 welds already in use across Los Angeles will be allowed to stand untouched. It‘s a prospect that prompts Atilla Zekioglu, a steel-frame specialist at the L.A. office of the engineering firm Ove Arup, to muse philosophically. ”You say it’s a natural disaster, but it‘s actually a man-made disaster. We are the ones building these buildings.
“And I don’t think we need to point fingers and blame people. This is a science that has evolved tremendously in the last decade or two. We just didn‘t know about it, and now we do. So should we do something about it, or should we ignore it?” Zekioglu thinks the answer has to be yes. “I don’t think ignoring it solves anything. Sooner or later you have to pay for it, somehow. What if it happens tomorrow?”
The transformation of Richard Holguin, at one time a mild-mannered champion of seismic safety, encompasses the full range of the city‘s steel-frame dilemma. He says the news that came earlier this year, the discovery of a major new fault line directly under downtown L.A., didn’t even cause his department to flinch. The fact is, it will take a lot more than an impending catastrophe to inspire costly political action in L.A. “Retrofit ordinances are passed after earthquakes,” Holguin says with a shrug. He concludes with a passive grin. “People have a tendency to forget real quick.”