Earthquake codes rock some renovations
New state requirements cover ‘critical buildings’
In 1755, the largest earthquake in the state’s history rocked through Massachusetts, shattering chimneys, felling stone fences, and drying up springs.
Few earthquakes since then have left as much of a dent on the state, but a recently adopted set of state building codes is forcing communities to plan for the next big one. And the cost of protecting critical existing buildings could send tremors through local taxpayers.
In Newton, the requirements could upend plans to renovate two fire stations. Other communities - including Lexington and Natick - with long-term hopes of renovating police buildings and fire stations could also be affected.
Under the building code, which was adopted a year and half ago and is still being tweaked, communities that are renovating critical buildings - such as fire stations, emergency shelters, and police stations - that are made of unreinforced masonry must incorporate protections to ensure the building can stand up to an earthquake.
“You don’t want to have an earthquake and have the fire trucks not able to roll out,’’ said Mike Guigli, a technical director with the state’s Department of Public Safety and a liaison to its Board of Building Regulations and Standards, which instituted the new codes.
Many of the state’s older buildings are made of unreinforced masonry, which can crumble under the pressures of even a moderate earthquake, Guigli said.
“It could be devastating,’’ he said.
The cost of quake-proofing, though, can tip the scale between renovating and replacing.
In Newton, where officials are hoping to renovate the Oak Hill and Newton Centre fire stations, it may just be cheaper to construct a whole new building because some of these requirements could cost substantially more than anticipated, said Alderman Lenny Gentile.
“When I say, ‘substantially more,’ I’m not embellishing it,’’ Gentile said. Much of the cost would come from building new walls, he added.
The city’s consultants are still trying to understand what additions these new codes will require and how much they will cost. Initial estimates indicate that seismic improvements could add about $1.5 million to the $5.7 million cost of upgrading the Newton Centre station, according to city officials.
“Now, we need to find ways to cover the unanticipated costs,’’ Gentile said.
Newton won’t be the only community likely to experience the sticker shock.
Lexington is among other towns also looking at fire station renovations that could trigger these new code requirements, said Brett Donham, a partner in the firm of Donham & Sweeney Architects, which works with several communities on civic buildings.
“It means that the cost of renovating these buildings has gotten very, very expensive,’’ Donham said. “It’s going to affect every municipality that has an existing fire station or police station.’’
Pat Goddard, Lexington’s director of public facilities, said the town would need to include these earthquake-proofing upgrades if it renovates the police headquarters.
Lexington officials will consider the facility requirements next fiscal year, and Goddard said while he expects the requirements to cost more money, they will also protect the lives of people inside.
“You’re improving the inventory of buildings,’’ Goddard said.
In Natick, where renovating a fire station has been discussed for several years, although nothing is planned, officials are keeping an eye on the new requirements.
“I’m not surprised that the building code has finally been upgraded,’’ said Maurice Pilette, the Fire Department’s fire protection engineer. “It is an additional construction cost.’’
In the seaside town of Duxbury, where hurricane-proofing buildings has long been a priority, including the new earthquake protections didn’t stretch the budget for a current firehouse renovation project, said Scott Lambiase, the town’s building commissioner.
“That wasn’t a complicated structure,’’ Lambiase said.
But upgrading a building like a school to withstand earthquakes and meet other building code requirements is a different story, he said.
Schools aren’t in the same critical building category, but if a certain amount of work is done on the facility, the community needs to also make earthquake upgrades.
Duxbury officials concluded that instead of extensively renovating the town’s middle and high schools, they would just replace them, Lambiase said.
Construction on the schools is scheduled to start this summer, he said.
While Massachusetts may not be considered the epicenter of earthquakes, its building codes have included earthquake considerations for years, but mostly for new buildings.
Ashburnham Fire Chief Paul Zbikowski, the president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, said most of his organization’s members are used to incorporating earthquake precautions into new construction projects.
When Ashburnham built a new public safety facility in 2008, officials had to ensure that it was earthquake proof, Zbikowski said.
“I asked, ‘When was the last time we had an earthquake in Ashburnham?’ ’’ he said. “You never know when it can happen . . . With people’s lives, it’s hard to be too cautious.’’
In recent years, the state’s home-grown building code started to require earthquake upgrades for owners who substantially renovated their buildings, or changed the use by increasing the number of people who occupied the facility, said Joe Zona, a senior principal at a Waltham-based engineering firm, Simpson Gumpertz & Heger. Zona is also the chairman of the state’s structural advisory committee.
But in 2010, Massachusetts followed other states nationwide and adopted the International Building Code, with some local amendments. The code is based heavily on California’s standards.
The new code requires that even for minor renovations, such as the addition and elimination of doors, to critical buildings, communities need to make seismic upgrades.
That might be overreaching and cause unnecessary financial hardship, Zona said.
The state is considering some changes to the building code that would soften these requirements, and trigger the structural upgrades only when there is significant renovation.
The state’s Board of Building Regulations and Standards will consider final recommendations to the code next month, Guigli said.
“We’ve been given some feedback that it needs to be tweaked,’’ Guigli said.
Still, communities have to ask why not spend the extra money to earthquake-proof a building when they are already pouring millions to renovate it, Zona said.
“There’s definitely a policy issue,’’ Zona said. “The code is a minimum standard.’’
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com