Construction Faults Alleged in Building Collapse

Quake: Materials used in Northridge Meadows allegedly did not comply with architects' plans, consultant says. Builder's lawyer says the complex met code requirements.

Ann W. O'Neill and Kurt Pitzer
Los Angeles Times - March 18,1994

The fractured walls and floors of the Northridge Meadows apartment complex reveal alleged "construction defects" that may have contributed to the building's collapse during the Jan. 17 earthquake, according to a consultant who says he has reviewed the original building plans.

Richard J. Phillips, a former president of the Structural Engineers Assn. Of Southern California, said Thursday that he also has reviewed photographs of the building and other documentation gathered by attorneys representing the families of two of the 16 people killed in the tragedy.

Phillips said the documentation indicates that some wooden and metal supports in the building were less strong than those specified by the building's architects.

"Certainly all these things go together with the apparent lack of quality control in of this building, which [apparently] led to its failure," said Phillips, who was hired by the Times to review the documentation. He heads a city task force on seismic hazard reduction.

A lawyer for Heller Construction of Westlake Village, which built the complex, said that it complied with codes when the structure was built in the early 1970s.

"The question is whether or not it complied with the standards in existence at that time, rather than whether it complied with a certain set of plans," said Jon Mower, Heller's lawyer.

A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the families of Northridge Meadows residents Ann Cerone and Bea Reskin, who were killed in the quake.

A March 1 court order by San Fernando Superior Court Judge Judith Meisels Ashmann stalled demolition of the 163-unit complex indefinitely so that evidence regarding the collapse could be preserved.

At a hearing today in Van Nuys, the attorney for building owners Shashikant and Renuka Jogani, who purchased the apartments about a decade after they were built, will seek another court order to block or limit public release of the findings and to bar the families' attorney, Joel B. Castro, from speaking about them.

Among the alleged defects that Phillips said have been identified by engineers and other consultants working for the plaintiffs:

  • Nails used throughout the building were smaller than the nail required by the building plans.
  • Joist hangers that secured beams to the walls were half the size of those specified in the plans. The plans also called for nine-inch joist hangers to be secured by nails; pronged four-inch joist hangers were used instead.
  • Diagonal strips of 1-by-6-inch wood were used under 1 ½ inches of concrete laid to form the second and third floors, instead of plywood, as called for in the plans. The 8-by-4-foot sheets of plywood would have provided more resistance to the forces of the earthquake.
  • Metal pipes supporting apartment units built over parking spaces were not as strong as specified. The wall of the circular pipe should have been one-half-inch thick, but was only on-quarter of an inch thick. All four of the parking bays at the complex collapsed.

Castro said several engineers, architects and other experts are analyzing the findings for his office. They include structural engineers from Conrad Associates of Van Nuys, architects from O'Leary Terrasawa Partners of Los Angeles, and Robert Powell, a leading expert on wood technology.

Mower said none of the defects suggested by Castro's consultants have been found by a structural engineer retained by that firm. He declined to name the engineer.

"We have looked at it and we have not identified problems with either the plans or the construction," said Keith Koeller, another attorney representing Heller.

Koeller said that building plans routinely change as construction progresses, and he is trying to reconstruct the building history in detail.

Northridge Meadows was built before building codes were tightened after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. Officials have said the construction met codes in force at the time.

The engineering study, undertaken as part of a lawsuit seeking damages for the deaths in the apartment, has assessed only whether builders matched the design of the architect, not whether building codes were followed, Phillips said.

Inspection records of the complex have been destroyed in a routine purge of old records, according to Ron Nelson, records management coordinator for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.

Northridge Meadows did not appear to be constructed any differently from many other buildings of it era, and similar construction problems were detected in other buildings after the quake, Phillips said.

Shortcuts, he said, are commonplace in apartment construction--and in the inspections and quality controls for high-rises and other large commercial structures are more thorough than those applied to most apartment building construction.

Phillips said that further examinations of the pancaked first floor and foundation of the Northridge Meadows Apartments are likely to reveal other clues to the three-story structure's collapse. But these areas can not be examined until the top two floors are dismantled and removed during a costly controlled demolition.

Within days of the quake, engineers and officials with the city's Building and Safety department said the lack of plywood-reinforced shear walls probably played a role in the collapse. The plywood reinforcements were not required in 1970, when the building plans were approved.

In addition to the Joganis, the suit names Heller and his construction company; architect Morris Brow, and structural engineer Woodward Tom.