Steve Gemmell

Bolting It Down

WORDS David Bentley  PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Sugden 

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From Colorado ski bum to Oregon retrofitting entrepreneur, Steve Gemmell has proved himself to be a staple of the Portland construction community.

Born to Australian scientists and immigrants, Gemmell had a wealth of knowledge to work with from a young age. As the road led him to Portland after receiving a major in German Studies, Gemmell found himself running odd jobs and fixing up his sister’s home, which grew into his mother company, Gemmell Construction.

Portland Interview had the opportunity to sit down with Steve and discuss his life story, as well as his passion for seismic retrofitting.  

Born to Australian scientists and immigrants, Gemmell had a wealth of knowledge to work with from a young age. As the road led him to Portland after receiving a major in German Studies, Gemmell found himself running odd jobs and fixing up his sister’s home, which grew into his mother company, Gemmell Construction.  

Portland Interview had the opportunity to sit down with Steve and discuss his life story, as well as his passion for seismic retrofitting.  

You’re celebrating your twentieth year?

That’s correct, since 1999. First off, I technically have three businesses, Earthquake Tech LLC, which is a subsidiary of the mother company Gemmell Construction. I also own Alberta Development. Additionally, I’ve acted as a larger commercial contractor and as a commercial developer. My volume of work tends to be with our Earthquake Tech products and services that mainly focus on residential projects.

So, both of your parents immigrated here and worked as nuclear scientists…that must have been some upbringing?

Well…I do feel a bit worldly and educated, or better… Lucky and fortunate to grow up like that. I was given a lot of options. I kick myself in the ass now because I didn’t take full advantage of it. Understanding the gift of the time. So fast forward… Now, I have an 11-year-old daughter. I’m trying to get her to understand that when you’re a kid you have a lot of time and options. Take advantage of it. I am looking to have the same time and options today, like a lot of us are. As a kid, you find yourself trying to figure out just how to burn a Saturday.

Was your sister’s house the first one that you retrofitted for seismic security?

No, I started off as a painter in 1994. I also had the opportunity to get my general contractor license because the CCB offered it to me. Getting my license gave me options. I had already been doing work on bathrooms and kitchens, so I transitioned to remodeling as well. 

When I bought my own place in ‘95 my dad, being a scientist, knew about the fault line that we have off the coast of Oregon. He suggested I get earthquake insurance. I called up State Farm and he gave it to me right over the phone. No questions asked. I remodeled that one, then refinanced it because it was in the beautiful late ‘90s… So easy to do… I bought another house. I called State Farm again for earthquake insurance and this time he asked if my houses were bolted down. I had no idea what the hell that meant, so I called up an engineer I’d been working with. He’s the guy that showed me how to do this… I said, “What is this?” He said, “This is a seismic retrofit.” I bolted down the houses, then I got my insurance… Then I realized I had to do this to qualify. Then bam! The light bulb went on. People like myself will want this. I started Earthquake Tech in 1999. Slowly, we grew out of remodeling and did exclusive seismic and structural work. At that time in the company it was mainly residential work. In the last couple years, I’ve been involved in a lot of commercial because there is more of a market for it. As peoples’ awareness grows, the city keeps pushing for it. It’s really blowing up. This is my retirement plan at this point. If I can do it for another 10 years, I’m done!

It seems a little scary going under a house? It’s got to be hard work?

Hell, my knees are shot bro… I’m going in for double knee replacement in late winter next year so I can’t do that work right now. I can’t wait until I can again, you know?

How many employees do you have at Earthquake Tech?

Six on the outside, three on the inside, including myself; it’s a nine-man ‘special ops’ crew.

How busy are you?

It’s interesting because there’s a certain flow. It seems to be very seasonal even though we can work year-round. People still have ideas on what we can do at different times of the year. I must remind people that we are in your basement… We’re still happy and warm down there.

What homes need to be retrofitted? Who is your target customer?

Anybody that understands the value of their assets. I’m a believer in insurance to a point. To me this is a really simple and inexpensive for protecting a big investment.

When did builders start to pay attention to bolting down houses to foundations?

In 1976 it became part of the building code in Portland. Builders and contractors incorporated bolting down houses with vertical bolts coming up out of the concrete foundations. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a seismic quality job, but it was better than nothing. The contractors of the ‘80s houses blew it off. Inspectors were letting it go. So, if I were to pick the year of homes that are most likely bolted down, I would say the mid-nineties and up. There’s not a whole lot of work left to be done on those houses. The codes and regulations can change all the time because we are talking about a nine point plus magnitude earthquake. 

The 700-mile Cascadia subduction zone off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington will produce a massive earthquake sooner or later. If the entire zone gives away at once producing a full margin rupture, somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2 magnitude, do you have the capability to secure a building to withstand that? 

The stuff we are doing today could seriously take that on and of course we’re talking basically about the worst of the worst. That’s the possible scenario, right? An earthquake is like a tornado, you’ll notice a trailer park is destroyed but there are those few houses that are still standing.

There are smaller quakes that happen all the time that can be pretty damaging. There are fault lines that’ll produce a lesser extent earthquake around us and under us. Even if a smaller one happens, and your house comes off your foundation it’s not just not some easy fix.

The last time there was a mega earthquake was sometime in the 1700s. Do you know when it will happen again? 

Yeah, I get people asking me the question all the time. The other day I was driving my truck around with Earthquake Tech on the side of it. A guy on the sidewalk next to me said, “Hey when’s the next big one going to happen?” I said, “I don’t know man, five minutes or 50 years!” Then, he said, “Why can’t the sciences prevent it?” I laughed so hard. “I don’t know! But I’ll tell them to get on it!”

They say an earthquake is the hardest thing to predict.

It is. It’s not like some weather pattern. It just builds up all of this tension, then, it decides to release. It doesn’t really give you a warning when it decides to go.

Research shows that 95% of buildings and bridges are not built to withstand a nine.

No, it will be intense when the big bad one hits. 

The NEIC locates about 12,000–14,000 earthquakes each year. Those records are reflected in the graph above. Magnitude 2 and smaller earthquakes occur several hundred times a day worldwide. Major earthquakes, greater than magnitude 7, happen more than once per month. Is there also another way to look at the differences?

Sure, it’s not just about magnitude. It’s also about depth. So, you can have a large-scale earthquake and if it’s deep enough it won’t affect you. On the other hand, a shallow earthquake with a small magnitude can really affect you. That is why we simply can’t take it for granted that our houses will make it through some of these smaller ones.

Earthquake Tech’s main business is securing homes to foundations, but do you have suggestions for homeowners to secure other areas of their home?

As far as earthquake preparedness goes, we look at the house, structure and garage, as well as the hot water heater to see if it is strapped down. A few days without water and you will wish you had protected the tank. There is 75 gallons stored in there that will look tempting to you after a few days without water. We also address gas valves. We install an emergency shutoff valve that will close off the gas from coming into your house when it is rocked by an earthquake. People pay a lot of attention to this after the knowledge of fire is associated with earthquakes and gas lines. Additionally, one should obviously store food and water. It’s an absolutely known fact that the prepared prevail after things like this happen.

Are you seeing a trend or priority in the last 5-10 years of people getting their homes retrofitted? Is a home being earthquake ready adding value? Are home sellers finding it important to have done for resell?

Absolutely, because we have more people educated about earthquakes. Also, there are home-grown policies out of Salem that have made it mandatory to check the box. Your sale form providing information about your house should indicate if your house is bolted down.

Some people may feel they can’t afford Earthquake Tech. What are we looking at?

On the average you are looking at $3,500 and that includes permits, and inspections etc. Not a bad insurance plan when it comes to protecting your largest asset.

So, if disaster strikes and your house moves off the foundation, how do you lift or shift it back on the 


You don’t. Well, you can do it, but you are talking about a lot of work, time, and money. You got to strip the house and get all the weight off of it, then build a frame around it to support the structure. If it slid off, the foundation probably won’t be in good shape either. There’s no rebar in these old foundations for additional support. 

Why do you do what you do?

It’s about loving people. I have always been a people person. Doing something helpful, and doing it well… Now that house is @/0%#& bolted down… Mic drop!