A Retrofit of Seismic Proportions at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center

If you’re familiar with California’s multifaceted and demanding rules and regulations governing energy use or consumer privacy, you won’t be surprised to learn that the state’s seismic building codes are no less strict. Indeed, they are the most stringent in the nation, designed to protect “Earthquake Country.”

Building codes add significant complexity to new construction, and with retrofits, the complexities multiply. But in the case of the 100,000-square-foot diagnostic and treatment center at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Los Angeles, a retrofit was the only option, given the constraints of the compact campus site, which is located in a mature neighborhood abutting the 101 freeway. The seismic retrofit meant an overhaul of MEP systems in conjunction with the structural upgrade – an overhaul, moreover, that could not be allowed to interfere with critical patient care, life safety, and hospital operations.

Quite a daunting assignment! But Syska engineers enjoy problem-solving. Connections spoke with Charbel Farah, principal in charge of the project; and Glynnis Adachi, its job captain and lead mechanical designer, to learn more about the team’s approach.


The retrofit of Building 3 – the diagnostic and treatment center – is the first component of a multi-phase campus-wide renovation and expansion led by architect of record Perkins + Will. Syska’s role includes the MEP design for many of the major phases of construction, including a new patient wing along with Building 3, on which Syska is collaborating with project architect Taylor Design. A converted hotel, Building 3 was constructed in the 1970s. Objectives of the retrofit included not only seismic code compliance, but also upgrades to the building’s utility equipment. Furthermore, plans called for the building to house relocated utility equipment that provides the backbone of connectivity for the entire campus.

The Approach

Step one was to replace and/or relocate utility equipment to make way for the structural seismic upgrade and make-ready work for later phases. Many of the existing major services were in direct conflict with new foundations, drag-beam installation, and the future excavation footprint for the new patient wing. Re-routing within the building would have had a detrimental effect on operations and the high-quality patient care for which the hospital is known. That’s why Syska’s design team began looking at the penthouse and roof levels, although these didn’t present easy solutions: The central feature of the existing structure is a post-tension slab, which drastically limits the ability to make changes. The team had to figure out how to spread the load and weight of the re-routed utilities in a way that the structure could tolerate.

Attaining this delicate balance required a tremendous effort in coordination and evaluation with other project team members. To support such collaboration, Syska hosted what Glynnis calls “big room meetings” in its new LA office. For four months, 15-25 team members representing the owner, architect, Syska, and design assist contractors met weekly to develop the design approach, review constructability and expected service outage timelines, and create “impact diagrams,” which allowed the owner to plan ahead for service interruptions.

Based on these discussions, the team members decided to house all of the equipment on the roof of building 3. “We created a backbone and a central system for the MEP to feed the entire campus to each and every building,” says Charbel. “It’s a highly unusual solution that I’d describe as ‘iconic.’ Glynnis adds that the team members started calling the roof “The Pompidou” since it looks like the famed Paris museum.

“The veins of the hospital are the MEP systems, so connectivity is key,” Charbel notes. “With this rooftop solution, we ensure robustness and resiliency while also enabling future upgrades.”
And future upgrades are more than likely. According to Glynnis, the California Department of Health Care Access and Information (HCAI, formerly known as OSHPD) refines the seismic code every three to six years. She expects that HCAI will introduce new requirements with deadlines for compliance by 2030, which will supplement existing compliance measures with that same deadline.

“We’ll be ready,” says Charbel. “We look forward to applying new innovation techniques in MEP engineering to support structural resilience. And thanks to the Tarzana project, we know we can successfully accommodate the most stringent seismic requirements while maintaining continuity of systems, which are so critical in a hospital setting.”


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