Soft-Story Retrofit Process

The soft-story retrofit process can be summarized as follows:

(1.) Structural engineering

It’s best to start by finding a structural engineer. Meet with several engineers at the property to discuss any concerns and see what they have to say about the retrofit project. If there are a few that you trust and would be interested in working with, ask each of them for a proposal for engineering services.

The subsequent action items include:

  • Engineering Contract. Formulate an agreement with a structural engineer. Feel free to inquire about or renegotiate any of the terms in the contract. The agreement will likely be project-based and should cost around $8,000-$12,000 for engineering services. There should also be an hourly rate for any possible work done after the project is approved by the city.


  • As-built Architectural Plans. Provide or have building plans developed that show the existing architectural layout of each floor. Precision Property Measurement (PPM) is an excellent and cost-effective subcontracting service that can quickly develop these documents in dwg format for around $1,000-$1,500.


  • Engineering Design. The structural engineer will then begin work and develop a set of construction documents and an engineering report. The construction documents specify the structural work and the engineering report shows that these specifications meet building code. Consider whether you’d like the soft-story retrofit to meet the minimum standard or go beyond this baseline. Communicate this to the engineer. Where practical, a few extra thousand in construction costs can dramatically increase seismic capacity.


  • Plan Review. Upon completion, the structural engineer will take these materials to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) where the project is reviewed and approved for construction.


(2.) Construction

Once the plans have been approved and you’re ready to begin construction, find a contractor to perform the soft-story retrofit. Contractors like to move through their process quickly, so it’s best to only contact contractors once you’re ready to begin construction. Keep in mind that construction areas need to be clear for work, so if storage and/or parking is impacted, consider a temporary solution.

The subsequent action items include:

        • Contractor Selection. Either with the structural engineer or on your own, submit pdf files of the construction documents to at least several general contractors. They will review the plans and provide estimates for the work. I’m happy to help with the selection process. I have a network of contractors who specialize in soft-story retrofit and would be happy to bid the project.


        • Construction Contract. Select a contractor and formulate an agreement. Depending on the building type and the amount of work you want done, construction costs can range anywhere from $40,000 to $250,000. Most projects are $80,000 to $120,000. Note any exemptions within the contract, such as for the re-routing of utilities (gas, plumbing, electrical, etc.), and keep in mind that these may increase costs by several thousand dollars.


        • Permitting. The contractor will then go to the Department of Building Inspection and “pull” the building permit for you project. The permit fee will cost around $2,000 and the contractor will invoice you for that separately.


        • Construction Work. The contractor will then begin work and should finish within 6-8 weeks. Because soft-story work occurs only within the grade level of the building, tenants are not displaced. Though disruption should be minimal, there will be considerable noise, debris, and the like. It’s an unfortunate part of the process.


        • Financing. Financing options are available as described in this financing article on my website. 100% of the retrofit cost can be passed through to tenants in the form of a 2% rent increase over 20 years. Unfortunately this does not help owners who reside in their unit.


Once work is done, you will receive a Certificate of Final Completion from the city. This exempts you from any mandated work for 15 years.

And that concludes the overview of the soft-story retrofit process.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.


Mike Abell, P.E.

Article by City Structural, Inc. (