Hillside Home Retrofits Can Save Your Life

Contractors built homes on steep hillsides in Oakland, Berkeley, and parts of El Cerrito when land on flat lots was no longer available.  For the same reason, contractors built many homes on steep lots in San Francisco.  The structural deficiencies inherent in hillside homes caused numerous casualties in addition to catastrophic losses of property in the Northridge earthquake.  The photos below, and the video above, show what happened to hillside homes in the Northridge earthquake.  They clearly point out why hillside home retrofits are so necessary.  A hillside retrofit might save your life.

Bay Area Retrofit was fortunate enough to have received training in hillside home retrofits from structural engineer Nels Roselund who is a co-author of this report on retrofitting hillside homes.

In response to this tragedy, the City of Los Angeles developed the Los Angles Hillside Code for hillside home retrofits. This code does not rely on plywood shear walls to protect these homes. Unfortunately, the California Building Code still relies on retrofit standards that use plywood in spite of the fact these houses will collapse. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the Hayward Fault.



Here is a photograph that shows why people love hillside homes; the views can be spectacular. Notice the police tape going across the photo. In the photo below you see what lies down the hill. You can see a cement slab leading into a cliff that once was a driveway.

This catastrophic damage could have been stopped with a hillside home retorfit

Why do Hillside Homes Kill People?

The Northridge earthquake completely destroyed this house while other homes around it withstood the earthquake.  Why?  The answer to that question was the focus of an extensive engineering study.  This study was conducted by a Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety and the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California. Their findings contradicted what they believed about shear wall bracing.  Shear wall bracing is not allowed in Los Angeles, but it is still allowed in the Bay Area.

What the researchers found was that shortest stiffest plywood rectangle failed first.  This is shown by Panel A in our illustration.   Then the plywood on the next shortest and stiffest panel (Panel B) absorbed the forces until it failed. Then the plywood on the next shortest shear wall (Panel C) absorbed the forces until it failed, the failure of the plywood would be sequential until the house collapsed.  Plywood that is one uniform height does not react like this.

Hillside home, one needs a retrofit

Before you can understand the retrofit methods used to protect hillside homes, you must be able to distinguish a downhill hillside home from an uphill hillside home. The retrofit of the two types of construction is vastly different and it is the retrofit of downhill homes that is the concern of this presentation. This drawing shows two types of downhill hillside homes.

An uphill hillside home is no more susceptible to earthquake damage than a home built on flat land. The hillside home retrofit methods discussed on this presentation do not apply to an uphill hillside home.


Why hillside home retrofits are so necessary

The performance of shear walls in normal homes


Why Plywood on Hillside Homes Reacts Differently from Most Homes

These two illustrations represent a standard rectangular shear wall on a standard horizontal foundation. You can envision the vertical lines of the drawing on the left side as being the 2×4 studs of a wall that have a sheet of plywood nailed to them. The drawing on the right shows how the 2 x 4 studs and shear wall deform when earthquake forces hit it. The little triangle thing represents “delta”, an engineering term that indicates the amount of deformation that takes place. NOTE: This standard rectangular shear wall configuration has been tested by engineers and the load limits of it are known and understood. The building code strength values for shear walls are based on this rectangular configuration.


The performance of shear walls on hillsides


In the above diagram, the mudsill stayed attached to the foundation, but the top of the shear wall moved, resulting in tearing of the plywood panel at the foundation attachment. This is an idealized depiction of tearing, but it shows the kind of “stretching” that the shear wall is subjected to during an earthquake.

Stepped Foundation Failure in Hillside Home

Hillside home shear wall lifting off foundation

Failures in Stepped Foundations

This diagram represents the effects an earthquake has on the shear wall of a sloped foundation. Notice that the short upper end of the shear wall displaced, but the tall lower end remained in place. This kind of damage might be interpreted as uplift related to overturning, however, the top edge has not lifted, instead the upper edge of the shear panel has moved horizontally away from the foundation slope.

Hillside home earthquake damage

The earthquake pushed this hillside home off the hill

Photo of a sloped foundation.

The photographer, after taking this picture, turned to his right and took this next photo.

More hillside home earthquake damage

These are the remains of the house that disconnected from the uphill ledger and fell down the hill. Notice the line of trees just beyond the rubble and the debris past the trees.

More hillside home earthquake damage

This is the debris beyond the trees. The next-door neighbor’s house. Notice that the floor diaphragm and roof are intact. All supporting structures are totally destroyed.

The Main Floor Being Pushed Down the Hill

A typical hillside home with hillside hazards. Picture in your mind where the main floor level of this house is located and the downstairs walls that support it.

Floor twisting off foundation in an earthquake

This illustration represents the main floor level for a typical downhill hillside home and the downstairs walls that support it. The vertical lines represent the studs of the downstairs walls sitting on the foundation that secure the house to the hillside. The studs and walls may be those of a living area below the main floor or they may be the studs and shear walls of the cripple wall that supports the main floor.

Floor of hillside home pulling away from hill

This illustration represents the main floor level for a typical downhill hillside home and the downstairs walls that support it. The vertical lines represent the studs of the downstairs walls sitting on the foundation that secures the house to the hillside. The studs and walls may be those of a living area below the main floor or they may be the studs and shear walls of the cripple wall that supports the main floor.

Damage Caused by Rotation of the Floor

Floor of home rotating shear walls collapse

This drawing demonstrates the effect of cross-slope forces on a hillside home. The main floor remains secure at an uphill corner then rotates around that point, moving the house away from the hill. In reality, earthquake forces attack a house from all directions; the combined effect is a circular motion familiar to people living in earthquake country.

Floor Joists pull away from foundation

Next, we’ll look at factors the Southern California Task Force found contributed to hillside homes becoming detached from their foundation. Preventing these factors is the goal for retrofitting hillside homes. In this illustration, earthquake forces pull the floor joists off the mudsill. The joists move on the mudsill, pull out the nails holding them in place, slide off the mudsill, fall off the foundation and tumble down the hill.

Rot on the uphill side weakens the house

Debris built up at the base of the house raises the soil level above the foundation level, resulting in moisture-related structural damage. Corrosion of nails and bolts, and rot damage to wood undermine the mudsill and the joist-to-mudsill connection. When earthquake forces pull on the joist, the connection is too weak to resist destruction.


In this situation, the contractor nailed the floor joist to the ledger after he bolted the ledger to the foundation wall. If, due to deformation of the shear walls, displacement of the house is great enough, the joists pull free of their nailed connection and the main floor level falls from the ledger support.

Close up view of house pulling off foundation

Photo of ledger detachment.

House almost falling down

Imagine if the ledger had detached completely; the house would not have survived the downhill plunge.

House is missing, fell down the hill

This photo shows where a concrete slab ripped away from its uphill attachment. Possibly the house in the picture shown at the beginning of this presentation.

The Solution

Secondary anchor used in hillside home retrofits

An angle iron secondary anchor. It is difficult to get a scale of the actual size of the anchors we will be showing. In this photograph, the metal is 4 inches wide by ¼ inch thick. This anchor is almost three feet tall.

Another type of secondary anchor used in hillside home retrofits

Similar secondary anchor and foundation plates.

Primary anchor used in hillside home retrofits

A photo of a primary anchor bolted built from the previous detail.

Very large hillside home primary anchor

 The contractor welded all the components together on site as shown in this primary anchor.

Hillside home retrofit resisting large earthquakes

Photo of the same primary anchor. Retrofit contractors must custom engineer the primary anchors for each individual house.