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Church Turns to New Technique in Quake Salvation

October 10, 1985|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The Rev. David Reed faced a predicament. The venerable Gothic church housing Reed's 770-member flock, the First Congregational Church of Long Beach, had been deemed an earthquake hazard by city building officials.

What to do? None of the options seemed very palatable.

The red-brick building, completed in 1914 and long considered a Long Beach landmark, could be demolished. Reed and his congregation quickly dismissed that notion, but then discovered it would cost upwards of $1 million to make the Cedar Avenue church seismically safe. Worse still, the tedious reconstruction job would require that the congregation relocate for nearly two years.

Just when the situation appeared hopeless, the church was blessed by something of a godsend: A trio of local engineers, led by former city building director Edward O'Connor, developed a technique of earthquake restoration that promises to make reconstructing the church both easier and cheaper.

The new technology, called the centercore system, is expected to be used to upgrade the First Congregational Church sometime during the coming year, probably after the chance of winter rains subsides.

If it works, experts predict the centercore system should prove a useful technique for bolstering some of the thousands of old, potentially hazardous buildings dotting California's earthquake country.

But the promise has limits. Even the staunchest backers of the new technology acknowledge that it may not be effective for the types of older, multi-story structures that are common in big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and, to a lesser degree, Long Beach.

Other engineers, however, have begun perfecting techniques that should fill that gap. Among them is a futuristic concept called the earthquake barrier system, which could get its first test on two residential high-rises in Long Beach, the Villa Riviera and the Cooper Arms.

Such developments in the brave new world of earthquake technology are good news for Long Beach, where 640 buildings remain classified as earthquake hazards and face either restoration or the wrecker's ball. Since the mid-1960s, when the city began cracking down on such buildings, some 46 structures have been rehabilitated to meet seismic standards while another 242 have been demolished.

Most of those hazardous buildings are unreinforced masonry structures erected prior to the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, a disaster that killed 127 people and prompted state officials to begin upgrading California's building codes.

Built before modern construction practices were in vogue, such structures come in all shapes and sizes, from urban flophouses to brick-and-mortar movie theaters to architectural masterworks like Long Beach's First Congregational Church. These old buildings, more than any other type, have been red-flagged as earthquake death traps by seismic experts.

O'Connor maintains that the centercore system is the answer for unreinforced masonry buildings. By using the new technique, he says, such structures can be buttressed to greatly improve their chance of withstanding a major earthquake--such as the recent Mexico City disaster--without collapsing.

"Buildings aren't like whiskey," O'Connor said, "they don't get better with age."

Indeed, the technique should give the walls of old masonry buildings 10 times their original strength, said Joseph Plecnik, a professor of structural engineering at Cal State Long Beach who is working on the project with O'Connor and David Breiholz, a Lomita-based civil engineer.

"It's a very simple technique," Plecnik said. "But we have to prove it will work, and that's what we're trying to do right now. The proof in the pudding, both dollar-wise and technology-wise, will be the church."

Holes Drilled in Walls

Instead of ripping away a building's interior or exterior to install reinforcing columns and beams, the technique uses a diamond-bit coring drill to bore 4-inch holes in each wall from top to bottom at intervals of about 6 feet.

A length of steel rod is placed in the hole. Construction workers then pour a liquid mix of polyester and sand into the hole. When the mix hardens around the steel bar, it forms a column that reinforces the brick wall.

But the polyester mix should do even more. While being poured into the hole, it percolates through cavities in the wall to fill pockets untouched by cement or grout, stitching the bricks together and giving the wall added strength.

O'Connor said he began considering the new technique more than five years ago. After some gentle prodding, he convinced Plecnik, a longtime friend who had been conducting tests on the use of epoxies and resins to shore up buildings, to join him in the research.

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