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More on soft story buildings — a Q&A with structural engineer James Cranford

As I mentioned yesterday, I am not a structural engineer. However, my friend James Cranford is. He is Principal at Stephenson Engineering and he was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about soft story buildings (storey if you’re Canadian).

BD: What is a soft (or weak) storey building? And why is it such an important design challenge, even in a very un-seismic city like Toronto?

JC: A soft storey refers to any level in a building that has LESS capacity than the level above. This means it has both less strength to resist loads and less stiffness so that it will move more than the levels above. Soft stories are one of the most significant challenges that many modern building designers face because they are one of the most likely ways that a building can fail catastrophically if not properly designed. A soft storey failure occurs when the building hinges above the weak level and the columns below can no longer support the load of the building above as they become overstressed and loaded in ways they were never meant to act. This leads to a sudden, often pancake type collapse that is likely to bring down the entire building.

We see potential soft storey issues most commonly in mid to high-rise residential buildings that have either amenity or retail spaces at the ground floor. These are spaces that by nature are large and as open as possible. During design, the structural engineer needs to recognize this and compensate for the lost capacity in other ways. This is usually done through a combination of increasing the capacity of the remaining walls and adding new walls at the weak level that fit with the building layouts.

BD: What does the Ontario Building Code mandate in terms of soft storeys?

JC: The OBC generally does not permit soft stories in any form for buildings where people are likely to live, work or play. In critical infrastructure like hospitals which must remain fully functional in the event of a major earthquake, the OBC goes further and does not permit any ‘lateral force resisting elements’ like shear walls or steel frames to be discontinuous below. This means that if you have a wall on the 5th floor of a hospital, that wall must exist with equal or greater capacity on EVERY level below, without exception.

BD: How much more stringent is British Columbia, where there is greater seismic risk?

JC: The requirements in the British Columbia Building Code (BCBC) are almost identical to those in Ontario in this case. However, the seismic design forces will be much higher based on the potential for much larger earthquakes, so while buildings will generally be designed for a higher seismic capacity, they must be proportioned similarly to prevent soft stories.

BD: Speaking generally, what is usually required structurally in order to retrofit an existing soft storey building so that it can properly withstand things like earthquakes?

JC: The most common way to retrofit a soft-storey is to increase the capacity of the weak level. In smaller buildings this can usually be achieved by adding new ‘lateral-force-resisting elements’ like shear walls or moment/braced frames until the overall storey capacity matches or exceeds the capacity of the levels above. On larger buildings this becomes more complex, as the loads are much higher and simply adding capacity may not be either feasible or practical. Therefore a full structural analysis is usually required to find a solution that can be tailored to the unique structural and architectural conditions. This often involves a combination of increased capacity and the introduction of ductile detailing which will allow the building to dissipate seismic energy. This can be roughly thought of as a ‘bend but don’t break’ approach to surviving an earthquake.

In some jurisdictions, the extreme risk caused by (many) homes built with soft stories has prompted local governments to intervene. The City of San Francisco (as well as many other municipalities in California) have enacted ordinances requiring home owners to assess and upgrade their properties, including single family home with garages a the lowest level, to reduce the risk of soft-storey failure in an earthquake.

BD: Thanks for this, James.

I don’t usually do Q&As on this blog, so let me know in the comment section below if you found this one valuable and if you’d like to see more of them.


  1. John Bell

    Brandon, good stuff. A nice break from the usual just as were your occasional “Fun Fridays” (I think that was your term)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Adams

    You asked for feedback on the Q&A. I thought it worked very well in this instance. The questions were good, the answers direct and clear, the subject matter interesting. For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on I suggest caution against overuse of the format, but full license to deploy it.


  3. John Arnott

    I think this detail level adds to the credibility of your commentary without bogging the reader in the minutiae of a specific application. Great addition, please continue.


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