San Francisco’s 181 Fremont is widely considered to be one of the most earthquake-resistant buildings in the world.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE/HEARST NEWSPAPERS VIA GETTY IMAGES San Francisco’s 181 Fremont is widely considered to be one of the most earthquake-resistant buildings in the world.

While the diverse cities, beautiful landscapes, and generally warm weather make California a desirable place for many, the state historically carries a higher risk of experiencing a natural disaster than nearly anywhere else in the United States, according to FEMA data.

Exacerbated by climate change, natural disasters are a problem architects need to face in California on a day-to-day basis. AIA California’s Climate Action Committee offers a free framework for architects called “What
You Can Do Right Now,” which addresses reducing building carbon footprints, regenerative design, climate action via code change, and myriad other topics.

Bill Melby, FAIA, a retired architect and former principal at Ordiz Melby Architects in Bakersfield, Calif., is currently California’s state disaster coordinator and a member of AIA’s Disaster Assistance Committee. He’s worked with AIA California to help mitigate natural disasters that often impact the state’s built environment—namely earthquakes, floods, and wildfires.

“The more we minimize personal injury and monetary damage through natural disasters, the better we all are,” he says. “I think a lot of the people I work with realize, ‘This could be me, this could happen anywhere.’”

Mature Earthquake Resilience

Melby calls earthquake resilience in California “pretty mature,” adding that local groups like the International Association for Earthquake Engineering publish sophisticated annual studies.

The California Building Standards Code follows the International Code Council and evolves annually, but Melby says there is room to expand earthquake readiness. “Of course, you can always
do more,” Melby says. “There are architects in California that are using base isolation and other higher-level techniques on buildings.” (Base isolation is a method of seismic protection in which the structure is separated from the foundation. This significantly reduces the amount of energy transferred to the structure during an earthquake.) Famously, buildings like the Transamerica Building and, more recently, 181 Freemont, both in San Francisco, are designed to withstand damage from earthquakes and go above and beyond.

181 Freemont, the first building in the world to be given the highest rating by the Resilience-based Earthquake Design Initiative (REDi), is also the first U.S. building with a fully automated emergency-evacuation elevator system.

Located in San Francisco’s South of Market district, 181 Freemont houses condominiums and office space, including the San Francisco office for Facebook’s Instagram division. The tower’s seismic resiliency begins 262 feet below street level, where 44 caissons are augered into bedrock, according to building designer Heller Manus’ project manager Ryan Boe, who spent six years on the project: “It is literally the safest building in the city,” he previously told ARCHITECT magazine in 2018. In the article, Jeffrey Heller, FAIA, president and founder of Heller Manus Architects, says that it is among the most earthquake-resilient in the world.

While architects are taking steps to ensure San Francisco’s newest building projects are as safe as they can be during seismic events, the region’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system has also been strategizing for decades on how to guarantee safety for anyone using the system.

Tian Feng, FAIA, the district architect for BART, references the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which, he says, brought “catastrophic damage” to the Bay Area, as a reference point. It killed 63 people and caused part of the Bay Bridge to collapse, rendering it unusable for a month.

Feng says the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake prompted BART to implement ways to keep improving the system, increasing the odds that nothing would go wrong in the event of potentially stronger and more catastrophic seismic events.

They investigated how to enhance the system in both infrastructure and operational processes.

“Rather than say that we survived—we weren’t destroyed in the earthquake—it was important for us to take a different approach. It was important for us to ask ourselves what kind of effort we need to put forth to make sure our system can perform under all conditions,” Feng says.


Founded in 1957, BART comprises 131.4 miles of track: more than 33 miles of aerial track, 65 miles of track at grade, and nearly 33 miles of subway track.

There are 50 BART stations in the Bay Area, including stops in Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, and many other towns and cities in the region. In fiscal year 2022, more than 100,000 people rode BART each weekday.

To keep safety paramount in one of the United States’ largest and most traversed transit systems, Feng helped shepherd the BART Facilities Standards. “These specifications are the basic requirements governing the material, equipment, and methods used in construction contracts administered” by BART, according to the organization’s website. The standards are regularly updated.

“We work with broad industry experts, both national and international, to learn new methods to analyze the potential impact of earthquakes,” Feng says. “From there, we develop our design, construction, and operation standards. Our own standards exceed what many consider standard building codes.”

Feng says BART then launched the Earthquake Safety Program, which “addresses the original BART system completed between 1972 and 1976, with a service area spanning three counties—Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco,” according to the BART website.

System extensions, built mostly during the 1990s, employed more stringent and up-to-date seismic criteria than the original system, and thus do not require upgrades.

Feng says the program is retrofitting older tracks with new earthquake-resistant upgrades, including fiber wraps. “These upgrades are all proactive,” he says.

“BART is a service system. We cannot have anything collapse, because the system would be completely unfunctional as a device for moving people,” he continues. “Our design criteria are for our infrastructure’s operability, not just for life safety. We want design operability. It’s like a hospital or a fire department; when you design those for earthquake safety, you design for operability, because they’re a device that communities need most.”

Additional Threats

Like Melby, Feng is a founding member of AIA’s Resilient Design Committee in California. He is the current co-chair for AIA’s Resilient and Adaptation Design and Advisory Group. Feng sees a “huge advantage” in AIA’s organizational structure when it comes to facing additional climate-related natural disasters.

“We want to see how regional and national connections can benefit everyone. California can bring significant information regarding earthquake safety, Louisiana can bring significant information about flooding, Kansas can bring information about tornados. We can all benefit from this organizational structure,” Feng says.

Both Feng and Melby consider sea level rise to be a major issue for California in the coming decades.

“A sea level rise adaptation plan is very important, and it’s a particular initiative we’re thinking about endorsing at AIA California,” Feng says. “We’re predicting sea level rise anywhere from 30 inches to 6 feet in the next 30 to 70 years. We do have time, but it’s inexcusable to sit here business-as-usual.”

Melby agrees. “Sea level rise is significant in places like San Francisco. We have to think about the standards that an architect should be held to for mitigation,” he says.

Wildfires are also a major concern for Melby, who thinks the science to help architects address wildfire disaster isn’t as mature as the science behind earthquake resilience.

A 2022 United Nations report concludes that the risk of catastrophic wildfires around the world will increase due to climate change. In California, for example, wildfire season has extended from just a few months to nearly the entire calendar year.

According to California’s CalFire agency, in 2020 there were more than 8,500 wildfires in California, with more than 4 million acres burned and 11,116 structures destroyed. In 2018, the Paradise, Calif., fire alone destroyed nearly 19,000 structures.

Some potential mitigation possibilities are simple.

Embers and low-intensity ground fires are responsible for 90% of structure loss due to wildfires. “By careful design of the first 5 feet, structure loss can be reduced,” Melby says, adding that fire-resistant materials such as fiber-cement siding, metal gutters, multipaned windows, and gravel are perferable to things like cedar-shingle siding, vinyl gutters, single-pane windows, and bark mulch around a house’s foundation.

He also recommends keeping flammables, including log storage, recycle bins, and wooden fences, at least 5 feet from the home.

“If a wooden fence attaches to a building, if that fence catches on fire then there’s a path for the fire to go straight to the home. There are simple fixes,” Melby says.

Ultimately, Melby calls for state lawmakers to ensure that safety standards and practices around natural disasters continue to be prioritized.

“Resilience and climate change issues are changing faster than the legal areas that address them,” he says. “This is something that’s important. Architects really need to be involved in this.”