Fixing San Francisco’s Façades
by David Wessel, Principal
It was almost 25 years ago when a client called us and asked if we could stop by their building in downtown San Francisco—they had something to show us. When we arrived, the building engineer brought out a large piece of terra cotta masonry that was found on the sidewalk over the weekend. It matched their building’s exterior, and we could see a large void on the façade, like a missing tooth. Our subsequent conditions survey led to a stabilization project for the four facades of the client’s commercial structure. During the close-up inspection, at least two additional pieces of terra cotta come off in our hands. Many more were prevented from falling during the construction phase.
Although northern Californians may associate falling pieces of buildings with earthquakes, a far more frequent (and far less dramatic) cause is deferred façade maintenance. The potential of falling hazards due to deferred maintenance has been recognized in other U.S. cities for more than three decades. In fact, New York City’s façade inspection ordinance was, unfortunately, precipitated by the death of a Columbia University student who was struck by a falling piece of masonry 1979. Many other cities in the U.S. have façade inspection ordinances, including Chicago, Illinois, and Columbus, Ohio.