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San Francisco takes the lead in innovative earthquake building design

Wednesday, February 19, 2014   by: Greener Ideal

In November 2008, San Francisco voters passed Proposition A, allowing $887.4 million in funding through general obligation bonds for the San Francisco General Hospital Rebuild Program. This program replaces the existing main hospital building with a new facility that meets the state’s seismic safety requirements. State law requires that all general acute care patients relocate from non-compliant hospitals before Jan. 1, 2020, an ominously close deadline as research by the U.S. Geological Survey predicts that the odds of a major seismic event like the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake striking the area again within the next 25 years are 1 in 25.

As San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center is the only Level 1 trauma center serving San Francisco and northern San Mateo County, the rebuild program is an essential step in preparing for earthquakes.


Proposition A paved the way for a rebuild program that has the new facility scheduled for completion five years before the 2020 deadline. Site clearing and utility relocation began in 2009, and by July 2012, builders were erecting the structural steel frame following a year of excavation and foundation work. Program managers slated exterior enclosure construction for 2013, with interior build-out continuing until the facility is open and operational in 2015.

Base Isolation

The facility will be constructed with a base isolation foundation, the most advanced seismically-resistant design used in earthquake-proof buildings today. During an earthquake, isolators in the foundation can slide as much as 30 inches in any direction, reducing movement in the building. The design, which decelerates the stress that the ground motion puts on the structure by 30 percent, reduces the potential damage an earthquake can cause, according to the architects. Actual damage to the structure would be minimal, and the hospital could continue its operations without interruption. Most importantly, it would not be necessary to move any patients.

Architecture and Construction

The city chose local firm Fong & Chan Architects, which has more than 30 years of experience designing health care facilities. The company was able to embrace the design challenge and meet the demands of such a high-profile project head on with a highly qualified hospital design team.

The design offers the best in seismic resistance and improved patient comfort and safety, while blending in with the surrounding historic buildings.

Construction was carried out by Webcor builders in San Francisco along with local NECA-IBEW teams. The teams described the construction on the hospital addition as unlike any other type of construction around and detailed some of the unique aspects they encountered in this video.


The new facility, as well as being a fine example of an earthquake-proof building design, will have 284 beds and 14 operating rooms. The structure will consist of two levels, with a 40,000-square-foot emergency room, a 20,000-square-foot radiology department, and units for Intensive Care, Critical Care, Neonatal Intensive Care, and Forensics. While most other hospitals have rooms serving more than one patient, 92 percent of San Francisco General Hospital’s 284 rooms are single occupancy, and each of those rooms is built with hospitality in mind. The aim is to create a soothing environment, using colors that evoke nature and well-being with a floor-to-ceiling curtain wall system that maximizes daylight. The design includes handrails in every room, rubber hallway flooring that reduces the risk of injury from falling, and a 25,000-square-foot healing garden.

A Green Design

Despite its aspirations and innovative design, the facility is very environmentally friendly. The building, once completed, will exceed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) requirements. The building materials contain 30 percent recycled content and all wood is FSC-certified. However, one of the most exciting green aspects of the design is that the base isolation system that reduces the impact of earthquakes, the main thrust of the rebuild program, uses 10 percent less steel than other solutions. In other words, the innovative technology offering the best method to prevent earthquake damage is also the greenest technology, representing a reduction of 3,000 tons in the total amount of steel required for construction.

In addition to the building materials, the architects have considered water conservation in the design. Low-flow fixtures and dual-flush toilets in patient rooms will be installed throughout the complex. Even the drought-resistant plants in the healing garden and other landscaped areas will be watered with reclaimed water.

Looking Forward to 2015

The San Francisco General Hospital Rebuild Program is an exciting step in the advancement of medical provision in the area. The facility is set to become a shining example of earthquake proof buildings, while also offering a complete range of medical services and a hospitality-focused approach to recovery. Most importantly, the advanced earthquake resistant techniques used in its creation ensure that, even in the event of an earthquake, the facility will remain operational without the need to relocate any patients.

It was the prospect of a “doomsday” scenario that encouraged the development, but in preparation for the worst, the new facility is offering the very best for the people of San Francisco.

Dominic Giarratano is the executive producer of ElectricTv, an online video news magazine which highlights the highly technical construction work of NECA-affiliated contractors and IBEW electricians and technicians, Dominic is responsible for all aspects of the production; from concept to completion.


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