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Apartment Collapse Probe Raises Questions on Codes : Safety: Plywood construction was not required when complex was built. Builder says rules were followed.

January 19, 1994|RICHARD SIMON and CLAIRE SPIEGEL and HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The San Fernando Valley apartment complex that collapsed and killed 16 people Monday was built like thousands of other structures throughout Los Angeles--without plywood reinforcement that gives extra strength to walls during earthquakes, according to preliminary reports from city and state building officials Tuesday.

Plywood reinforcing has been used to meet city and state building codes that were strengthened after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, but it was not required when the apartment complex was built, officials said.

City officials have not pinpointed the cause of the building's dramatic failure, but they said they will evaluate whether it was an isolated incident or one that indicates a widespread problem.

They also said they will examine whether old wood-frame buildings should be required to meet more stringent standards, as is now required of unreinforced masonry buildings.

Brian Heller, whose company built the apartment building that collapsed, said the building was constructed according to existing codes then and with "every earthquake device that was required . . . and I think that included plywood."

"It's just awful," he said of the collapse. "I really have no idea what happened."

In a published report, the building's designer also said that he was at a loss to explain the collapse, but speculated that a violent upward thrust from the quake was to blame. "I feel terrible. . . . As far as I'm concerned, there's no way to attach blame to anybody," he said.

When construction got under way in 1972, the 163-unit Northridge Meadows Apartments met existing codes, officials said Tuesday. Experts said the three-story wood-frame complex relied only on its exterior stucco and interior walls to withstand lateral shaking from an earthquake.

"What struck me more than anything else was that the building used stucco and plaster or drywall inside, which provided the lateral resistance," said Richard Renous, senior structural engineer with the state Office of Emergency Services, after visiting the collapsed building.

"I didn't see any plywood," Renous said. "There may not be any plywood in that building at all."

Bob Harder, manager of the city building department's office in Van Nuys, said: "The preliminary report (on the building) is that there was no plywood." But Harder said he was unable to locate architectural drawings.

The code, he said, now requires 50% more lateral strength in walls, resulting in "extra use of plywood throughout most buildings. . . . You can't build a three-story building without plywood."

The building's architect, Morris Brown of Lompoc, told Newsday that the building was designed to conform to the codes in force at the time and recollected that plywood was required. But he said that even the most stringent codes and modern construction techniques cannot protect a building hit by the full force of an earthquake.

"There's no such thing as earthquake-proofing them, only making them earthquake resistant," Brown said. "If you're on an epicenter, who knows what will happen?"

City officials say that although most apartment buildings survived Monday's 6.6. temblor, the collapse of the Northridge Meadows apartments underscored the need to evaluate whether older buildings should be upgraded to meet modern earthquake standards.

"The codes are totally inadequate," said City Councilman Hal Bernson, whose district suffered the brunt of Monday's damage. "Maybe we can save some people in the next one."

Councilman Richard Alarcon separately introduced a motion Tuesday directing building officials to assess any damage across the city that may have resulted from code violations and recommend ways to prevent it.

Building officials said that inspecting all apartment buildings built before 1973 would be a massive undertaking. Requiring owners to add plywood would be costly, they said, because walls would have to be opened.

Officials said they will not immediately investigate why the Northridge complex collapsed.

"That's a forensic problem," said Nick DelliQuadri, senior structural engineer for the city of Los Angeles building department. "Right now we're trying to sort out what other buildings are ready to fall down."

He said inspectors Tuesday morning ordered evacuation of six or seven buildings in the Northridge area, but he declined to describe them or identify them by address.

Renous cautioned that only a detailed investigation will determine the exact cause of collapse of Northridge Meadows. Soil condition may have been a factor in the building's failure, he said.

He pointed out that the vast majority of similar structures did not collapse. "There are lots of three-story buildings built about the same time, probably built the same way, and they did not fail," he said.

A similar building next-door to the Northridge Meadows complex, built about the same time by the same developer and architect, remained standing after the earthquake, though it was damaged by severe cracking.

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