Bringing building permit enforcement to Anchorage's earthquake-ravaged communities
The 7.1-Magnitude earthquake on Nov. 30, 2018, tested the strength of buildings across Anchorage. Questions remain as to why buildings in some areas suffered more damage than others.
Building officials say the Anchorage Bowl saw relatively low damage -- a credit to International Building Code seismic standards enforced within
of the municipality.
But Anchorage’s northernmost communities of Eagle River and Chugiak saw more structural damage than anywhere else, according to Municipal Building Official Bob Doehl. These communities are located beyond the municipality’s Building Safety Service Area and are not subject to the same stringent permitting enforcement nor inspections.
According to Doehl, within the Anchorage Bowl about 4 in every 100 owners of homes built after 1990 applied for federal disaster relief -- in Eagle River and Chugiak, 1 in 5.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says they’ve provided over $26 million in individual disaster relief since the earthquake. That money has gone to over 4,334 different Anchorage homes. FEMA is still determining how much of that assistance went to Eagle River and Chugiak.
Fresh sheetrock fails to hide jagged cracks along the door frames and walls of Duncan Whitney’s Eagle River home. As Whitney walks down a dimly lit wooden staircase to the basement he warns of construction materials perched on the edges of the steps.
“Watch your step,” Duncan said. “This is where most of the damage happened – we're slowly but surely getting it back into shape.”
The intense seismic motion caused the sheathing walls of Whitney’s house to buckle. Once the snow melted months after the earthquake, he surveyed the damage and realized his home was leaning downhill. That’s when he called an engineer.
Jake Horazdovsky, structural engineer with PDC engineers and Chugiak resident, says he’s inspected multiple homes in the area and found extensive damage.
Walking around Whitney’s basement with an IBC book in hand, he gets sheetrock dust on his black jacket as he points out where the home’s original contractor went wrong.
“The contractor, when they built the house, they didn’t properly nail the sheathing on the outside of the house to the bottom of the sill plate … here and here,” Horazdovsky said, pointing to a windowed wall that received a heavy amount of damage.
New construction has corrected these mistakes. At Horazdovsky’s direction, contractors added plywood shear walls, and the IBC standard number and spacing of nails to ensure seismic motion does not split them apart. They’ve also anchored vertical sheathing walls on the outside of the home to the foundation.
Installed properly, Horazdovsky says sheathing and shear walls distribute the weight of the home to the foundation, making everything more structurally stable. Done incorrectly, homes can buckle with enough seismic force, like Whitney’s did.
But Horazdovsky says the cost of installing these IBC seismic upgrades is minute compared to the cost of damages that result if they are not installed, or improperly installed.
“Instead of $200,000 worth of damage, these repairs would have cost around $5-10,000,” he said, gesturing to Whitney’s under-construction basement. “Most of this probably would have been prevented if this home were subject to building permit enforcement.”
That’s exactly what Horazdovsky is advocating for: Including Eagle River and Chugiak in Anchorage’s building permit enforcement area.
“Eagle River is a prime example where we have the code, it is in effect, but there’s no enforcement,” he said. “Anchorage, structurally, they didn’t really see much damage. But Chugiak and Eagle River … we saw a lot more damage out here. And I think a lot of it really could have been prevented.”
Municipal inspectors have assessed 3,838 homes from Eagle River to Girdwood, according to Municipal Building Official Bob Doehl. They red-tag buildings that are unsafe to occupy.
17 homes were red-tagged in the Anchorage Bowl, compared to 55 in Eagle River and Chugiak where the relative population size is much smaller. Rumors surfaced that the northern communities shook harder than Anchorage proper, which seismologists with the University of Alaska’s College of Engineering have since debunked.
Horazdovsky is intent on bringing code enforcement to Eagle River and Chugiak, but not all contractors are on-board.
Andre Spinelli, Vice President of Design and Development with Spinell Homes, says his company is building three different subdivisions in Eagle River and has more projects on the horizon. He says many contractors already hire private inspectors to ensure they are building to international code – and allowing the municipality to enforce permitting would increase the relative cost of homes.
“The permits in Anchorage might be $6,000 more than a permit in Eagle River. I just don’t think that, from an affordability standpoint, the housing market can necessarily take that hit,” Spinelli said. “Although there is some value, it might be too high of a price for what you’re buying, for that extra permitting fee.”
Despite the damages, Whitney says he’s relieved his home is still standing -- while others have foreclosed because repairs are too costly.
Reflecting on the widespread damage to homes in his own community, Horazdovsky says they need permitting enforcement to prevent a “ticking time bomb” from going off in the event of another big earthquake.
we’ll have another big earthquake – it's
,” Horazdovsky said. “It’s time for a change. Because if we do get the big earthquake, there could be a lot of loss of life if we don’t build our homes correctly.”
Anchorage’s southernmost communities of Girdwood and Turnagain Arm experienced very little damage, and they’re also outside of Anchorage’s BSSA. UAA scientists still don't have an explanation for why this happened, but say they intend to find out.
Channel 2 asked community leaders in both Girdwood and Turnagain Arm if they would support inclusion in the BSSA. Mike Edgington, member of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors, says his community has not had this discussion and does not have a formal position.
“Almost all of the recent development in Girdwood has been either individual single-family homes, where financing often requires meeting the International Building Code,” Edgington said in a written statement. “We don't have the same concern with private developer-built subdivisions. Based on informal discussion with other residents, I don't sense a community consensus on full enforcement of building codes, although I'd expect more support for meeting seismic standards.”
Horazdovsky says he has not yet garnered enough community support to bring building permit enforcement to Eagle River and Chugiak … But he’s far from done trying.