VICTORIA | OAK HOUSE

LIVING IN AN EARTHQUAKE ZONE (PART ONE)

Last summer, a few months after moving into Oak House, Mexico City got hit with a devastating earthquake. Killing time before bed one night I was reading an article about it on my phone. At the bottom of the article there were links to other articles I might be interested. Artificial intelligence had presumed that because a) I was reading an article about an earthquake and b) it could pinpoint my location to Victoria, BC, that surely I would be interested in a whole whack of articles about the devastating earthquake that is predicted to — I mince no words — “rip Vancouver Island in half like a zipper and send the Fairmont Hotel tumbling into the sea.”

Yes, late at night, Pierre away at the mine, I was very interested in these articles, many of which touted statistics like a “1 in 5” or “1 in 3” chance of The Big One happening in the next 50 years. THIS WAS NEWS TO ME, GUYS. I didn’t get much sleep that night, convinced every howl of the wind (and subsequent creak of the house) was The Big One coming to get us.

Having grown up in Ontario, this earthquake that “everyone knows about” was not something I knew about. A giant earthquake that has been predicted for 50 years (my dad says he learned all about it in elementary school) but has not happened yet is not exactly front page news anywhere east of British Columbia.

Ignorance is bliss. I insisted we buy a super-old house (anything newer than 1940 was out) and then I spent our first few months here directing trim work and choosing paint colours. My husband — who is a geologist — said nothing along the way about seismic upgrades or emergency preparedness as I fretted over light fixtures. I bet he wishes he knew that he could have played the earthquake like a trump card when I was falling in love with this 100+-year-old house that smelled like cat urine and he was dreaming about a super modern home with a view.

Had I known about this big earthquake when we were shopping for our new home, I would’ve had a few different criteria for our realtor. Number one would’ve been slab-on-grade (no basement) as buildings with lower centres of gravity are safer. Number two would’ve been budget, $550,000 instead of $700,000. I’m a very risk-averse person and, had I known that an earthquake could destroy our biggest asset, I would’ve chosen to have less money tied up in that asset. Losing this house (any house) to an earthquake would obviously not be great for us financially, but the more diverse our investments, the less damaging to us. We looked at quite a couple of cuties in the $500–$550 range — one was even slab-on-grade — and those passed-on places seemed very attractive once I fully understood the risks of living in an earthquake zone. (Just to be clear, not even the threat of a big earthquake makes me regret our move to Victoria. Even if this place turns to rubble, every minute that we get to live here makes it worth it.)

However, there was no going back — for better or for worse, Oak House was now our home and, even with the earthquake risk, I couldn’t imagine selling it and buying a “safer” investment.

So, we set about making a whole lot of seismic upgrades to our house — upgrades that, depending on the intensity and location of a major earthquake, might just save the house, but, more importantly, should save us should we happen to be in the house at the time of an earthquake.

Let’s back up and take a look with what we started with:

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This is a photo of the frame of our house where it attaches to our foundation or, in this case, doesn’t attach because it’s completely rotted out.

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This is that same corner after our carpenters were through with it. They went around the entire perimeter of the basement in this way, adding brand new framing lumber to every stud bay so that the house is double framed.

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Next, they added anchor bolts all the way around, actually bolting the frame to our concrete foundation (it was just resting on the foundation before).

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In order to for the carpenters to be able to do this, Pierre spent 50-60 hours pulling all our chip board walls and insulation out of the basement. (Not pictured: the 14 giant bags filled with asbestos-laced insulation that had to be taken away special.)

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Which meant re-insulating the entire basement.

Once the insulation was in, the carpenters returned to add plywood shear walls all the way around the basement, which will help our house from shaking side-to-side in an earthquake.

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Then, they nailed 2×10 blocks in a random pattern all between our ceiling joists, which should help prevent the house from shaking front-to-back in an earthquake.

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All of this work cost about $8,000 — money well spent in the event of a major earthquake and money well spent in the event of no major earthquake because it’s definitely something we can play up for resale. People will keep predicting this earthquake until it happens and, the longer we go without it, the more inevitable it will seem and the more attractive seismic upgrades will be to home buyers.

Which means we’ve finally arrived at a very happy point with Oak House — the point where I would buy it again, even knowing what I know about the earthquake risk. If I walked through the front door of this house today and saw all the changes we’ve made plus the changes to the structural integrity of the house, I wouldn’t hesitate to invest in this property and move my family in. (Of course, with all the changes we’ve made, we probably couldn’t afford to buy our house again, which is a very nice position to be in.)

Now that the workers are out, I’m doing a little sorting/organizing downstairs. I have a small pile of stuff for donation, but am pretty close to having an empty basement. The carpenters left a few sheets of plywood behind; I may ask Pierre to rip a few shelves for garden/outdoor tool storage. We don’t have a shed (or a garage, workshop, outbuilding, etc.) and we currently keep our lawnmower and edge trimmer (electric) inside and safe from rain and all other tools (rake, shears, pots, ladders) in a pile under our back deck. We are planning to build a shed in the backyard, but the purpose of the shed won’t be for storage, but for emergency supplies (living in an earthquake zone part 2).

Finally, some of you remember our 2018 project list and be wondering if we’re starting to veer off our planned path for this year. Because, yeah, intense seismic upgrades to our house don’t appear anywhere on that list. But they really should have, ahead of things like screen doors and kitchen countertops. To compensate for the extra work and budget, we might fall short of our official list this year, though I just checked it over quickly and we’re actually killing it and we’re less than halfway through the year, so I guess we’ll see!

If you live on the west coast, do you take the Big One seriously? Has the threat of earthquakes (or other natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.) affected where or whether you own your home?

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “LIVING IN AN EARTHQUAKE ZONE (PART ONE)

  1. Hi there – Lower Mainland reader here. I love to see how your house is coming along, you are doing a wonderful job. Having been a West Coast resident all my life, earthquake “reminders” come along regularly and we let a little panic rise to the surface then it’s business as usual or maybe denial 🙂 There are several specific geographical locations in the Vancouver area that we would not move to – ie Richmond and along the Fraser River, however there is a lot of new development there so maybe people just learn to live with it. We have recently set up an emergency kit which we add to monthly but we don’t dwell on all the scenarios or we’d be afraid to cross a bridge. There is helpful info on building a kit from the Provincial Govt: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergency-preparedness-response-recovery/preparedbc/build-an-emergency-kit

    1. Hi Debbie & thanks for your message! I think a lot of my anxiety came from having NOTHING in the way of precautions and now that we’ve made the seismic updates to the house I feel like we’re moving in the right direction. Once some safety precautions have been taken, I’m with you on “business as usual” — after all, we can’t really do anything to stop an earthquake if it’s going to happen and we love living here in the meantime! We plan to do a shed in the next year and outfit it with supplies, teach our daughter what to do in an earthquake and then… just let what will be, will be.

  2. I totally understand you wanting to seismic-proof your house! New Zealand reader here, and the earthquake risk here definitely affects where I am happy to live. Wellington? I’d love to! Hikurangi Subduction Zone goes…nope. Not living there. Same with Napier/Hastings/Tauranga…bascially anywhere that opens directly onto the Pacific, or anywhere that is in the central North Island! And the South Island is out too, because when the Alpine Fault goes (expected in the next 50 years) I don’t want to be living too near it! So Auckland it is. Yes, we have 50+ dormant volcanoes, but the risk of a severe earthquake is so low that when we have one occasionally it’s a huge event! I was super disappointed to be driving when we had a 4.3magnitude about 5 years ago and I missed it! My son was sitting at the table playing a computer game and he just thought it was the cat jumping off the shelf behind him! I loved seeing how you did the seismic-proofing, it’s so freaky seeing the pile situation under old houses! (we renovated an older house a couple of years ago. Eek!)

    1. Wow, hello from Victoria, BC! Thanks for reading.

      As I mentioned in my post, I didn’t know about the BIG earthquake risk when moving here so that didn’t affect our decision of where to live, but we are glad, at least, that we ended up far enough inland (about 3km from the ocean on all sides) to be out of the tsunami zone.

      As for the earthquake risk, we are right on the Juan de Fuca fault line, however it’s quite a long fault line, stretching from Alaska/northern BC down through Washington, Oregon and California. So a lot of the fear here is that the epicentre of the earthquake is right underneath Vancouver Island, which of course would be devastating to us, but the reality is is that is could hit Alaska or California and we wouldn’t feel much. Now that we’ve finished the seismic upgrades (no such thing as seismic proof, unfortunately!) I’m feeling a lot less anxious.

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