Book: Strengthening Houses to Resist Earthquakes: a Practical Guide

This book will show the most effective ways to strengthen houses against earthquakes. Many poor strengthening methods now in use will NOT stop quake damage.
Thor Matteson, Structural Engineer
Berkeley, California
United States
1 Team Member

Will your house survive an earthquake?  Will your community survive an earthquake?

I won't try to explain here what sort of houses are in danger during an earthquake (the answer:  Most of them).  What I will tell you is that the available building codes show VERY LIMITED methods for contractors to strengthen existing houses.  If you want to strengthen your home your contractor has little guidance on effective methods to use.  I am a structural engineer who designs earthquake retrofits every day, and I want to change that.

I have already written an award-winning book with similar content.  I need your help so I can finish work on the 200-plus pages of material I have collected for a book on how to strengthen your home to resist earthquakes.



Experts estimate that earthquake strengthening installations will fail to perform as expected in as many as 90% of retrofitted houses.

In December, 2011, the New York Times published an article estimating that one-third to two-thirds of earthquake retrofits in the San Francisco Bay Area are installed incorrectly. (See the article here:  In 2006, the Contra Costa Times estimated that 69% of retrofits would not function as expected.

San Francisco's CBS Channel 5 interviewed me for a story on inadequate earthquake retrofits in November, 2012 (see the full story here:  An official quoted in the story repeated the figure that one-third to two-thirds of existing retrofits are inadequate.

The Golden Gate Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors did an informal poll of its members, who estimated that only one in ten retrofits will be fully effective.

I want to provide useful, appropriate methods to strengthen houses, and explain the principles behind these retrofit techniques.  My hope is that this work can be the basis for codes or guidelines adopted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the State of California, or any other agency or organization interested.  As such, work funded under this initiative would ultimately be in the public domain.

FEMA is working toward a residential retrofit code;  they started in 1978, and may never finish.  I intend to complete my retrofit book by June.

The CBS Channel 5 story gives a time-frame for FEMA's expected code:  at least four years.  During the 2012 presidential campaign it was suggested that FEMA be eliminated--you have to wonder if the agency will even exist long enough to complete work on the document.  

Building code development in a democracy is slow, tedious, and cautious.  This is great for codes; but if people want something sooner, and more useful, a book like mine is the answer.  In some ways a code will be less useful than the my book:  codes cannot mention specific hardware or tools, for instance, yet that information is essential to people shopping for connectors and the like.  Codes still allow harmful practices that I will warn against.  Codes are a compromise between different professions and industries, and may not give the very best practices to use.

What's the hold-up?

FEMA contracts with "think-tank" organizations to develop guidelines for strengthening buildings (from skyscrapers to warehouses).  A proposal is written, organizations and firms respond, do the work, it's reviewed, revised, and finally--about 10 years later--put forth as an official FEMA publication.  By then some of the material may be obsolete.

For decades structural engineers have known how earthquakes damage houses--but wood-framed houses (typical on the west coast) don't cause many deaths in earthquakes, and therefore engineers have focused on strengthening more dangerous buildings. 

I could approach non-profit organizations that might fund this--but YOU are probably one who donates to those foundations anyway, and getting funding from them would likely take six months or more.  How many houses could be saved in that six months?

Meanwhile, Contractors have had to invent their own retrofit methods

While engineers were busy trying to protect people from getting killed in more dangerous buildings like old concrete or brick, contractors had to make up their own retrofit methods for houses.  Some of these methods will perform well, but too often they will not.  Some methods will cause more damage than if nothing was installed at all.  Websites for construction companies in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia show retrofit methods that are not effective.  A government website in Utah recommends using hardware in the wrong manner.  It's time to provide the information that the public deserves.

My qualifications to solve this problem

Writing Experience:  I have already written one book on wood-framed construction ("Wood-Framed Shear Wall Construction--an Illustrated Guide," published by the International Code Council.  More info here:  This book was the first of its kind;  it shows many real-life construction examples, includes 150 photos & diagrams, and is 180 pages long.  The second edition won two awards from the Structural Engineers Association of California (both the local and state levels).  The new edition of the book includes a chapter on earthquake retrofits--which barely begins to present the subject.

In November, 2011 an article I wrote on earthquake retrofits appeared in Fine Homebuilding magazine ("Protect Your Home with a Basic Seismic Retrofit" in issue #222--reprint available as a perk!)  

In response to the CBS Channel 5 story linked above I co-authored "QuakeCheck:  is Your House Safe Enough to Stay?"  This document is a 30-page overview of the principles of earthquake retrofits and correct installation methods.  You can find it at:

Design Experience:  I have 20 years of experience in wood-framed structural design.  My current engineering practice is almost exclusively designing earthquake retrofits for houses.  In the last two years I have designed retrofits for over 75 houses.  

Building Experience:  Before returning to college to study engineering, I worked for a contractor remodelling old houses.  I know how houses are put together, how to repair them, and what tools to use.

Resources:  I work closely with private home inspectors in the Bay Area;  they have provided hundreds of photos showing an amazing variety of incorrect hardware use, poor installation methods, and just plain costly retrofit methods that offer little earthquake protection.  In addition I have over ten thousand photos of my own to draw from.  

Other:  One of the think-tanks that is likely to write the next FEMA code has already contacted me as a possible contributor to that effort.  My proposed new book could be completed by the time FEMA issues a contract for their pre-code document development.  FEMA will likely adopt much of the material that I will present in the book.  I volunteer on three professional committees that are working on various angles of earthquake retrofit work.

People have contacted me from Utah, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia asking for information on earthquake retrofits.  There is a huge need for the information I intend to include in the book.

What is the "product"?

Existing guidelines and codes for earthquake strengthening all go over the same very basic material with slight variations.  

  • Need to reinforce around a garage door?  Not covered.  
  • Cripple walls taller than four feet?  Sorry.  
  • Non-standard construction?  Hire an engineer for $2,500 or more.  
  • Is hillside construction addressed?  Nope.
  • Building materials too heavy?  Can't help you.
  • Want photos of actual conditions?  Not available.

My book will cover the above and more.   The new book will likely be over 200 pages long.  It will include over 150 color photos and at least 40 construction details.  I wrote my book on shear walls so non-engineers would understand them.  The earthquake retrofit book will explain the principles involved to people without the need for an engineering degree.  If you have a contractor retrofit your home, you will understand what they did.  Contractors who follow the book will have confidence that the methods they use follow basic engineering principles.

Specific hardware items and useful products will be listed by name.  I will list alternative construction methods to use, based on installation costs and effectiveness.

Two things you can do:

Send money

I have about 200 pages of material collected (hundreds of photos, dozens of construction details, and reviews of several relevant publications).  For the last seven months I have been disabled with a back injury;  I spent a couple of those months focused on composing the book.  My disability more than used up my savings.  Finishing the book "in my spare time" as I get back to full-time work would take years.  I want to complete it before I lose my familiarity with the material, and especially before an earthquake hits.

I expect that if I could focus entirely on the book I could finish it within a couple of months.  But my mortgage, office rent, utilities, and other expenses still need to get paid.  

Spread the word on social media

I'm too old for Facebook.  LinkedIn sends me spam.  My phone is too stupid to tweet.  If you know how to use social media in a way that could help, this campaign needs all the publicity it can get.

Where your money goes

Whatever does not go to the IRS and Indiegogo's commmission will be used to support me while I pull together all the material I already have, supplement it as needed, and finish the book.  If I don't reach my fundraising goal I will work as much as I can before I go hungry;  at least the book will be further along in the process.  

If I exceed the goal it will result in a better product--I can hire an editor, have someone lay out the book using expensive software I don't have, convert the book from Word or PDF format to E-book format, etc.  Beyond that I could devise educational and training videos and such, or hire graphic artists to polish some of the diagrams & drawings I have.  All for a fraction of the cost of repairing a single earthquake-damaged house!

Publishing the book will make me filthy....  poor.

I know from writing my book on shear walls that sales of this new book will never make me any money.  There is a limited number of specialty contractors who need it--but they need it very badly. One of the jurists on the panel that gave my shear wall book an Excellence in Structural Engineering award called it "a gift to the community."  This new book will be even more of a gift;  I will distribute an electronic copy to anyone who donates $25 or more, and it's not worth worrying about donors passing on their copies.  Frankly I'd rather have the knowledge in as many hands as possible than hope for a $4 royalty like I get for each Shear Wall Guide that sells.

Earthquakes are not just a California problem

The entire west coast of the US, plus plenty of other areas, are in direct danger from earthquakes--and the rest of the country will be affected by the next big quake, too.

I don't live on the west coast--why should I care?

If you rely on goods shipped through the west coast, your life will be affected.  Hurricane Katrina raised gasoline prices in the entire country when Louisiana refineries went off-line;  similar effects would ripple out from damaged west coast cities.

My house is already retrofitted--why should I care?

First, ask yourself "was my house retrofitted correctly?"  Then consider the following:

The next large earthquake will devastate the economy where it strikes, and will affect the entire country.  Damage from shaking will be doubled by losses to fire;  that total will be doubled again by economic loss from closed businesses, delayed shipments, lost work time, etc.

If large sections of cities are left in ruins, people will move away permanently.  It will take decades for the area to get back to normal.  What will your life be like if the people who deliver your mail, pick up your trash, or run the gas station or grocery store all have to move out of the area?  Will Indiegogo even survive?

Communities will change forever.  Even if your 1915 Craftsman-style house survives, what would it be like if all the beautiful, historic houses around you were destroyed?  Whole neighborhoods will change character after a quake.

Thank you!  Let's get this done in time to prepare for the next big quake!


raised in 1 month
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$13,500 USD goal
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This campaign ended on February 2, 2013
Select a Perk
  • $15USD
    Bronze: Recognition in book

    Show the world how much you care about saving your community from earthquakes, and receive glowing recognition! Contributors of amounts from $15 to $24.99 will be listed in a special section of the book dedicated to Bronze Level Sponsors.

    0 claimed
  • $20USD
    Bronze: Retrofit article

    An autographed reprint of Protect Your Home with a Basic Seismic Retrofit from Fine Homebuilding Magazine, issue #222; recognition in the book as a Bronze Level Sponsor

    0 out of 25 claimed
    Estimated delivery: February 2013
  • $25USD
    Silver: E-copy of book

    Recognition at the Silver Level Sponsor, PLUS: The $25 level gets you a PDF (or similar, depending on final options based on funding received) version of the book that you can print out or pass on to your friends.

    2 claimed
  • $50USD
    Gold: E-copy of book

    Same as for $25 perk, with Gold Level Sponsor listing.

    0 claimed
  • $55USD
    Gold: signed Shear Wall Guide

    Your own autographed copy of Wood-Framed Shear Wall Construction--an Illustrated Guide. List price is $45; total with tax and shipping would be about $55--and I cover the tax and shipping! Listing as Gold Level Sponsor.

    0 out of 10 claimed
    Estimated delivery: February 2013
  • $65USD
    Gold: signed Shear Wall Guide

    Same as for the $55 perk, but for procrastinators or generous donors.... Plus listing as Gold Level Sponsor

    0 out of 10 claimed
    Estimated delivery: February 2013
  • $100USD
    Platinum: Paper and E-books

    This perk gives you an autographed GENUINE PAPER copy of the Retrofit Book that you can hold in your hands, write on, take under your house for reference, or use to shim the front of a tall bookshelf to make it less likely to fall during an earthquake! And of course recognition in the book as a Platinum Level Sponsor.

    4 claimed
  • $250USD
    Iridium: Paper and E-books

    Same as the $100 perk, but with listing as an Iridium Level Sponsor.

    1 claimed
  • $500USD
    Osmium: Paper and E-books

    Same as the $100 perk, but with listing as an Osmium Level Sponsor.

    1 claimed
  • $1,000USD
    Unobtanium: Paper and E-books

    Same as the $100 perk, but with listing as an Unobtanium Level Sponsor

    0 claimed
  • $2,000USD
    Earthshaker: House Evaluation

    Guided tour of your very own crawlspace, up to 4 hours (Limited to Alameda and CC Counties, some health and safety restrictions apply--add $500 for SF or Marin County; add $1,000 for greater SF Bay Area; contact me for other areas in CA--sorry, not yet licensed outside CA). Bring along up to 6** family members or friends! Listing in book as an Earthshaker Level Sponsor, copies of book. **Number in party may be limited by space, and the enthusiasm of your family and friends.

    0 claimed
    Estimated delivery: June 2013
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