Unreinforced Masonry Buildings - What & Why

Unreinforced Masonry

What’s Happening Now?

The National Development Council has provided their final report to the City on URM retrofit funding. With the completion of this report, along with the recommendations of the URM Policy Committee, the City has begun developing high-level policy recommendations for the Mayor's Office to review. (See the Project Documents page for the full report.)

In the fall of 2018, a group of interested private and non-profit sector organizations convened a separate effort to develop recommendations to implement a URM retrofit policy. SDCI and the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) provided technical assistance to that effort.

In the winter and spring of 2018, the City worked with stakeholders to investigate financing and funding options for owners of URMs. The Office of Emergency Management led this effort, and arranged meetings with community leaders, banking institutions, developers, real estate professionals, and historic preservation groups.

On August 3, 2017, the URM Policy Committee's final recommendations were released.

After a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the City Council passed Resolution 32033 on December 15, 2021. The resolution identified the primary goal of a URM retrofit program is to protect life safety by reducing the risk of injury from collapse of URM buildings in the event of an earthquake. Additional goals of the program are:

  • Preserving Seattle’s historically and culturally significant landmarks and structures that contribute to neighborhood character
  • Improving the City’s resiliency to earthquake events
  • Minimizing the impact of a URM retrofit program on vulnerable populations to the extent financially feasible

The resolution directs SDCI, OEM, and other necessary City departments to:

  • Fund dedicated staff to implement the program
  • Identify retrofit funding sources
  • Engage impacted communities and stakeholders
  • Submit legislation establishing the mandatory URM retrofit program for Council consideration

In 2022, SDCI engaged the Structural Engineers Association of Washington (SEAW), seeking local experts to serve on a technical task group. The Technical Standard Task Group was formed in July 2022, comprised of practicing structural engineers and SDCI staff.  The task group is charged with reviewing the previously proposed 2012 Proposed Retrofit Standard and revising it to align with the current building code.

As of September 2022, recruitment is underway for a dedicated URM Program Manager who will be directly responsible for drafting a mandatory URM retrofit ordinance as well as developing and implementing a retrofit program. 

The current list of URM buildings is available on the Project Documents page. We update the list quarterly to reflect the results of appeals and demolitions. All building owners have the right to appeal the determination of URM building status. Owners can do this by hiring an engineer to perform an in-depth analysis of the building to determine if the building does not contain any URM bearing walls. This in-depth analysis is beyond the scope of what the City could do in our validation efforts.

Please see the Timeline for our past and anticipated actions. 

Project Benefits

Public safety is the primary reason for requiring retrofits of URMs. However, there are also concerns about maintaining important buildings that are the heart of the historic and cultural character of many neighborhoods. Requiring retrofits for URMs means that more of these “character buildings” may be preserved after an earthquake. It may also result in less building demolition or vacancy. Retrofits can help lessen damage to these buildings, allowing businesses to reopen in a timely manner following a smaller earthquake; a City’s resiliency is key to recovery.

The End Result

Once the policy is adopted and legislation approved, we will develop a program to require owners to retrofit their URM buildings. We currently only require seismic upgrades when an owner is doing a large remodel to a building. The upgrades typically do not bring the URMs up to current code, but they do help stabilize the buildings enough to make them less vulnerable to collapse during earthquakes.

We anticipate that the program will have tools and incentives to help building owners. We would like to encourage owners to go beyond minimum code for seismic retrofit. Renovation beyond the code requirements increases the potential for buildings to be quickly occupied after an earthquake.