Legislature Poised to Weaken Florida Building Codes

The nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) today reiterated its strong opposition to Senate Bill 1312 by Senator Keith Perry of Gainesville that would forever alter and weaken Florida’s nationally-acclaimed building code system.

Slated for consideration today, Senate Bill 1312 eliminates the requirement to update the Florida Building Code every three years using model building codes as the starting point or foundation. The measure instead proposes that the Florida Building Commission will review the model codes for changes “one at a time.” The proposed approach would not only be more complex, expensive and inefficient than the current system, but it will stymie progress and lead to building failures during ordinary and catastrophic times alike.

“We oppose this harmful legislation as it takes Florida backward to an inferior system that will leave families and communities at unnecessary risk,” said FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “Sadly, decades of documented history indicate that our state must maintain a compulsory update system based on model codes or risk a return to a patchwork system of unequal construction standards and inferior, poor quality homes. This proposed, weakened system would leave Floridians exposed to physical danger and economic ruin.”

The proposal will:
• Move the current Florida Building Code steadily away from continuity with national, model codes;
• Place $60 million of flood insurance premium savings at risk;
• Compromise conformity across cities and counties leaving residents with unequal levels of protection—an antiquated system;
• Place unfair burdens on local governments to keep pace with innovation and new science without provision of necessary, additional resources;
• Overburden the Florida Building Commission that lacks the resources to approximate the national, model code development process (a $9 million per year investment);
• Introduce costly uncertainty and a lack of confidence that will drive down ratings by agencies, insurers, and catastrophe modelers; and,
• Cause avoidable, unfair and unnecessary suffering for consumers and communities for years to come.

Chapman-Henderson concluded, “After the deaths and billion dollar losses of Hurricane Andrew, Florida forged the most admirable building code system in the nation. Senate Bill 1312 would forever undermine that legacy, so we urge Florida’s leaders to protect our system, and reject any measure that places it at risk.” Additional information and resources are available in the commentary, The Case for Preserving Florida’s Building Code System.

Weather Channel’s “WX Geeks” Feature FLASH

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As you might imagine, the first question we often get when we encounter new contacts in our movement is, “What exactly is the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes or FLASH Partnership, and how does it work?” Because achieving disaster resilience requires integration of many different areas of expertise, our partners include academics, architects, builders, code experts, corporations, emergency managers, engineers, first responders, floodplain managers, insurers, leaders, manufacturers, meteorologists, modelers, researchers, scientists, and many more.

We are a diverse coalition with the conviction that good science should lead to good building practices, and, ultimately, safe families and strong communities that can both resist and bounce back from natural disasters. With this “road to resilience” in mind, we lead—through collaboration, communication, and innovation.

I recently sat down with Dr. Marshall Shepherd, host of The Weather Channel’s clever Sunday show, WX Geeks to talk about the FLASH Partnership and highlight our new national hurricane resilience initiative, #HurricaneStrong. Thanks to his expert interview skills, a great producing team, and a national news channel that lives its commitment to disaster resilience, we had a stellar opportunity to tell our story.

Enjoy.

When Legislators Forget About Building Codes, Hurricane Amnesia is Officially Here

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The Florida Building Codes enacted, enhanced, and consistently updated since the devastating building failures of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are considered a national standard for excellence in high-wind construction.

So, when our advocacy partners sent up an “all hands alert” just two weeks before the close of the Florida Legislative session, we were shocked to learn that the Florida Building Code was under assault. Someone, apparently a Florida Home Builders Association representative, had convinced a few legislators that it would be good idea to extend the update cycle for the entire state’s code from a three-year to a six-year cycle.

They attempted this by adding an amendment added to Committee Substitute #2 on House Bill 535, stating: 

553.73 Florida Building Code.— 

 (7)(a) The commission, by rule adopted pursuant to ss.120.536 (1) and 120.54, shall update the Florida Building Code every 6 3 years.

This was done quietly as the bill headed to its last committee, and then off to the House floor. Senate Bill 704 was set to follow the same route. It’s important to note that often when legislation is made quietly and at the last minute, it’s because the action cannot hold up under public scrutiny. Or, as we like to say in Florida, it can’t survive the sunshine.

And such was the case here.

I’ve written about this growing issue before here in this blog, as well as in our paper, Disaster Resilience Rising Means the Time is Right.

The three-year cycle is used by Florida, and most states, because it follows the International Code Council development process of new model codes crafted through consensus on a three-year, recurring cycle. Even so, there is often an administrative tail on the final adoption. Regardless, when we adopt and enforce the newest building codes, our building practices stay current with new products, science innovation, and post-disaster insights.

Yet some states and jurisdictions, like Minnesota and North Carolina, have elongated code adoption from three to six, or even nine years. These extended code cycles not only leave citizens without the benefit of current model building codes, but also impede the disaster safety movement goal to rapidly incorporate beneficial, post-disaster findings into model codes.

Opponents of timely adoption have convinced some lawmakers that there is no harm in switching from a three-year to a longer, six-year update cycle. They argue that it provides a cost savings with no offsetting harm to the overall construction in those states.

But they could not be more wrong. Here is how we made our case to the Florida press:

Stalling the timely adoption of the newest building code represents a backward step for construction, design, innovation, and disaster resilience overall with negative impacts across many fronts.

1. Families will be denied the latest insights and advances in construction technology and the benefits of innovation and advances that deliver savings across energy, fire and other cost drivers (ordinary water losses and/or catastrophic losses). For example, this will put essential code enhancements for flood resistance on hold.

2. The excellent building code policy record in Florida is one of the most important supports for the often-stressed property insurance system. This type of policy setback could have devastating effects on the delicate balance that has been so hard won post-Andrew.

3. The El Niño year has already delivered the projected tornadic and high wind events. The expected La Niña could bring similarly heightened activity. Further, many credible meteorology professionals suggest strong potential for a hurricane season reminiscent of the 2004-2005 activity level.

Shortly after the news spread of these amendments altering the Florida building code cycle from three to six years, the effort was abandoned. And, we are very relieved that it failed. But we should all be wary. If any Florida Legislator can be convinced that we don’t need to maintain current building codes in the most high-risk hurricane state, then we are not only forgetting history, but we are dooming ourselves to repeat it.

With this in mind, we’ve launched a new initiative, #HurricaneStrong, to help remind the public, leaders, and families alike, that we must remain vigilant to remain disaster resilient. I hope you’ll join us.