Six Common Sense Imperatives for Better Home Building

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How transparency, policy reform, and better construction can drive resilience in disaster-prone regions across the U.S.

Two days after Hurricane Michael, I told The Washington Post, “We have evidence that we can construct affordable housing that is resilient.” I shared home survival stories from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and pointed up how affordably-built houses often outperform more expensive structures when tested by disasters. The intrepid Post reporters went on to locate and showcase a current case where five homes built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers in the Florida Panhandle survived Hurricane Michael, a nearly Category Five storm.

The stunning front page story surprised some with clear and convincing proof that we can build resiliently in the face of disaster by using simple, affordable concepts. The national story helped families understand that everyone can have a disaster-resistant home.

We need more coverage like the Post story to help spread the word about affordable home resilience and many other common-sense basics of disaster safety. We need public and leadership support for meaningful changes that can help move the U.S. past the current home building model of “Build-Destroy-Rebuild” to one where we “Build to Last” instead.

This week, I will open our 2018 National Disaster Resilience Conference by offering six tactics to improve how homes perform in disaster zones. Some of these are surprisingly simple. Some are already in place. All are ready for implementation today.

 Increasing Consumer Transparency

  1. Individual Home Ratings

In 2006, our organization, the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), designed and implemented the $25 million pilot for the landmark $250 million My Safe Florida Home wind retrofit program. As part of that work, we designed an inspection-based, high-wind rating for homes using a 1 to 100 scale that was used in more than 400,000 inspections. The Florida Legislature liked the home score concept so much that they passed a law to require its inclusion during real estate closings. Sadly, the law was quietly repealed the following year at the urging of industries opposed to transparency, but the concept lives on.

Americans understand rating systems whether they are for cholesterol, cars, or schools. It’s time we add homes to the list. Today, we have much better data to create this system, and we can rate homes for all types of features from energy efficiency to durability, earthquake/flood/high-wind resistance, and more. We stand ready to support the effort.

  1. Home Construction – Basic Disclosures

Every home should have a permanently mounted identification plate next to the circuit breaker box that states:

  • Year Built and Permitted
  • Year of Model Building Code Used (if any) and Indication of Weakening Amendments Present Yes/No
  • Builder Name, Contact Information, and License # (if any)
  • Building Inspector Name, Contact Information, and License # (if any)

These things sound mundane, but when it comes to real estate, these details are often buried in closing documents instead of conveniently showcased like a handy sticker on our car door. Why does it matter? Several reasons. First, the best predictor of home performance in an earthquake, hurricane, or any disaster will be understanding which (if any) code was used. Next, when names and products are aligned, professional accountability often follows. Having the builder’s and building inspector’s name listed can not only inspire consistency, but it can improve performance too.

Lastly, unlike cars, buyers of existing homes may not have easy access to details about home systems. Knowing how to find the builder will make it simpler for new owners to learn about and maintain their purchase for the long haul.

  1. Disaster History Database

Trulia.com now includes a feature called “Hazard Maps” to help prospective home buyers evaluate value through the prism of potential for future disaster losses. The feature provides colored maps reflecting presence of earthquake, flooding, hurricane, tornado, and wildfire hazards.

Why not a similar feature that discloses past disaster losses for each home on an individual basis?

High-quality, granular “Big Data” about disaster and insurance claims already exists. We would like to see it leveraged and added as a featured disclosure on the MLS system, as well as websites like Trulia and Zillow.

This recommendation is simple, understandable, and powerful in its benefit for consumers to make informed buying decisions. We already have CARFAX. Could HouseFax be next?

Strengthening Public Policy

  1. Timely Adoption and Enforcement of Modern, Model Building Codes

Believe it or not, many communities are still built without the benefit of current model building codes and reliable enforcement practices to ensure consistent residential construction quality. Moreover, many state and local governments adopt model codes only to weaken or ignore their mandates.

Building codes provide the minimum safety standard for a structure, so it is critical that we use them, but why aren’t consumers worried about this?

For years, we speculated that consumers are not concerned about building codes because they don’t understand that they may not have them. This year, we researched that theory and we are correct. Our survey revealed that consumers are not worried about codes because they assume, incorrectly, that local leaders would never allow building without safety standards. Moreover, they expressed strong conviction that home builders that oppose codes are “shoddy” (their words).

I think our study says it all, and we will have more to share about it in the coming months. In the meantime, leaders need only look to the Hurricane Michael devastation in the Florida Panhandle to see the long-term consequences of short-term thinking when it comes to weakening building codes.

Upgrading Existing Homes

  1. Home Inspection and Retrofitting Grants

As part of the same My Safe Florida Home pilot program described above, we developed the first large-scale  U.S. wind retrofitting grant program that allowed for improvements to (1) opening protection (shutters or replacement of windows, doors, gable vents, soffits of a certain size); (2) roofing (enhanced roof deck attachment, secondary water barrier or underlayment, and high-wind/impact-resistant roof coverings); (3) reinforcement of gable ends, attached structures (porches), or more.

At its conclusion, the matching grants helped 35,000 Florida families strengthen their homes for future hurricanes. It inspired similar public programs in other hurricane-prone states, and private market retrofit financing programs as well.

The concept makes great sense once you understand that most of existing U.S. housing stock was built before the advent of modern, model codes. As such, we recommend that states and local governments begin to inventory and identify options for strengthening older homes against whatever hazards they face today. This can be done in conjunction with other housing programs that address affordable housing and energy efficiency.

When you think about the relative difficulty of strengthening existing homes as opposed to building it right the first time, enforcing strong model building codes for new construction makes even more sense.

  1. Rebuilding with Resilience in Mind

Large scale disasters bring massive rebuilding and recovery efforts that last for years and often decades. Whether a home is damaged by a loss such as house fire, or in a natural disaster like a hurricane, recovery efforts present a meaningful opportunity to upgrade homes with resilience in mind.

However, aside from coverage for mandatory law and ordinance upgrades, homeowner insurance contracts generally provide only for a return to pre-loss status. While this is understandable and consistent with the principles of insurance, it means that rebuilding after a loss typically excludes meaningful ways to strengthen housing stock before the next disaster occurs.

As a result, resilience upgrades like bracing cripple walls, enhancing roof connection systems, installing impact- and wind-resistant roof coverings, and stronger entry doors, or upgrading to wildfire-resistant materials become optional and must be paid for by the homeowner. Often, enhancements are beyond the financial reach of a family as they work to recover from the loss.

Ironically, the difference between the insurance-funded repairs and the cost of disaster-resilient upgrades is often manageable, but no systematic program exists to inform homeowners of resilience upgrade options, provide or identify funding to bridge the gap between claims proceeds and optional upgrades, or support the retrofitting and rebuilding through to conclusion.

We suggest that mitigation upgrade programs for families residing or rebuilding in disaster zones can be funded with both private donations or public funds, e.g., the FEMA Pre-disaster Mitigation (PDM) program expanded as part of the newly enacted federal Disaster Recovery Reform Act.

The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety Fortified program offers “beyond-code” methods for high wind and other hazards. In fact, Fortified provided the construction recipe used on the surviving homes examined by The Washington Post in the above-referenced story. Bridging the cost gap between insurance proceeds and resilience upgrades like those outlined in Fortified closes the distance between status quo and resilience for recovering families.

We know it can work because we piloted one of the first such programs in tornado-stricken Moore, Oklahoma and Louisville, Mississippi in 2012. As a result, 225 low-income families there now have tornado shelters, as well as peace of mind. We called it, “The Resilience Fund.” The model is ready and replicable.

Conclusion

We have shared the above ideas through service on councils, reform commissions, task forces, and FLASH programming since 1998. Individually, any one of these can improve home building quality. Some of them already do.

We offer these measures again today to continue the conversation around our movement’s “rethink” of how we build in the wake of the 2017 and 2018 disasters. After twenty years in the trenches, we know that increasing consumer transparency and building with risk in mind will reduce deaths and prevent losses before disasters strike. Further, we know that policy reforms deliver everyday benefits through more durable and energy-efficient structures as well.

What we don’t know is exactly how soon the next disaster will come. As such, there is no time to lose in making these options available for everyone, and we need the strong and growing cadre of industry and policy leadership champions to make it happen—today. When they do, home survival in disasters will become the rule, not the exception.

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