7 reasons California hospital building owners should act now to comply with seismic regulations

Seismic compliance with applicable California building codes is onerous and disruptive to building owners, particularly for a building in the highly regulated healthcare sector. Owners of older buildings housing acute care services have a big deadline on the horizon — January 1, 2030, the deadline for upgrading their buildings to SPC-4D.

That date may seem far away, but the best time to start the required SPC-4D retrofit process was yesterday. The second best time is now.

What is SPC 4D?

SPC-4D is a structural performance category that allows healthcare organizations to use such buildings to provide acute care services beyond January 1, 2030. Buildings currently classified as SPC-3, SPC-4, or SPC-5 may also be used to provide acute care beyond this point.

Upgrading older SPC-1 and SPC-2 buildings to SPC-5 is often prohibitively expensive (in Los Angeles County alone, the 2030 deadline has already spurred billions of dollars in planned overhauls at many hospitals). Many older buildings are typically part of the overall hospital campus; having to demolish them and replace them with new buildings due to non-compliance would seriously disrupt the organization’s ability to provide acute care services. SPC-4D offers healthcare organizations and building owners a lifeline for a significantly less expensive upgrade to keep the building operational beyond January 1, 2030.

The California Department of Health Care Access & Information (HCAI) is currently accepting project submissions for SPC-4D upgrades. An SPC-4D upgrade is voluntary and only applies to buildings currently rated as either SPC-1 or SPC-2.

Here are seven reasons California hospital building owners should act now to comply with seismic regulations:

  1. The current SPC-4D regulations are the cheapest and easiest to implement. The only alternatives to an SPC-4D upgrade are either to upgrade to SPC-5 or to construct a new building. Both options tend to be far more expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive to hospital operations. For the foreseeable future, an SPC-4D upgrade is the most cost-effective and least disruptive option to maintain hospital operations given current seismic readiness standards.
  2. Geologists say a major Southern California earthquake is long overdue. Corresponding Business Insider, Southern California has not experienced a major earthquake since 1857, putting the region about 80 years past its due date. The US Geological Survey projects a 60% chance of a major earthquake (6.7 or greater) in the Los Angeles area within the next 30 years and a 72% chance in the Bay Area. That’s the point of all this seismic foresight.
  3. The planning costs are only a fraction of the construction costs. Budgeting for a major retrofit can be a pain, and owners may be reluctant to consider it because they can’t afford such a big bite in the short term. But remember that getting the ball rolling for SPC-4D upgrade designs doesn’t mean taking on the entire financial burden of the upgrade now. The design phase is extremely affordable, only 5% to 9% of the cost of building the upgrade – and that’s no small advantage considering point 5.
  4. Construction for approved projects can be done in stages. Once the SPC-4D upgrade plans are approved by HCAI, hospital owners can proceed with construction in stages to keep the hospital running. There are no further interim dates or milestones other than completion of the upgrade construction by January 1, 2030. Given the relatively low cost of the design/permission phase, there is no reason to delay the work. In fact, the wait could be risky, as we’ll see in the next three points.
  5. Future code changes cannot be retroactively applied to approved projects. While SPC-4D compliance isn’t getting any easier, it could be getting harder. Nothing is stopping the state from adding new codes and regulations through 2030. Fortunately, future code changes cannot be retroactively applied to plans that have already been approved. Keeping a building compliant has never been easier, and by acting now, building owners can immunize themselves against future code changes that could make the process more expensive and onerous.
  6. Construction costs and earthquake insurance premiums will escalate. If a builder can bear the construction costs in the short term, several savings opportunities open up. For example, if you act quickly, you’re less likely to be faced with contractors using their escalation clauses for construction and charging more due to changing prices for materials and labor. Upgrading sooner rather than later may also qualify you for lower earthquake insurance premiums.
  7. Finding a qualified general contractor to do the work could be more difficult and expensive. As of May 2022, 728 buildings in California were rated SPC-1 or SPC-2 – a significant number of buildings that may require structural improvements. As January 1, 2030 approaches, it becomes more difficult to find a qualifying GC who is not booked past the deadline. Additionally, those that are available are aware of the limited supply and urgent demand for their services and could charge motivated building owners a premium for upgrading.

No healthcare building owner wants their facility to be taken out of service due to non-compliance with building codes. Campuses and communities depend on these buildings and the acute care services they provide. By getting out before the 2030 deadline and getting your SPC-4D retrofit rolling now, you can lock in reasonable costs, save money in the long run, and position your building to remain operational in 2030 and 2030 years beyond.

Edwin Najarian, PE, SE, is the senior principal and client executive of IMEG’s California structure teams in the Pasadena, San Diego and Anaheim areas.

Learn more about IMEG’s seismic retrofit planning and design services.