Making the Link: Stronger Flood Building Standards Required for Federal Funds

On January 30, 2015, the President took a major step to increasing the flood resilience in this country by establishing a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which ties federal dollars to stronger flood construction standards. The concept is simple: if federal funds are spent, they should be invested in structures built to last and withstand flooding.

FEMA reports that approximately 85% of disaster declarations are due to flooding, and according to the White House, between 1980 and 2013, the U.S. incurred in excess of $260 billion in flood-related damages.

And the costs are increasing. Congressional hearing testimony by Chad Berginnis, Executive Director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, cited that flood losses have increased to average $10 billion per year.

But what parts of the country are at risk? Coastal areas seem to be the obvious answer. And more than 50 percent of Americans live or work in coastal counties.

But it’s not just coastal areas that should be flood ready and flood smart. Flooding affects the entire country.

While the Federal government insures structures for flood risk, some portion of damage incurred during flood events is not covered by insurance, and is then passed onto taxpayers. According to Congressional hearing testimony, insurance coverage from natural disaster losses is typically less than 20 percent of the total loss, and since 1983, the U.S. has spent nearly $1 trillion dollars on disaster recovery and rebuilding.

So what does this new flood standard require?

The standard requires the elevation of new buildings, roads, and other infrastructure, in and around floodplains, that are built or substantially repaired with Federal funding.

There are several ways to determine the required elevation: (1) build using “a climate-informed science approach that uses the best-available, actionable hydrologic and hydraulic data and methods that integrate current and future changes in flooding based on climate science”; (2) elevate by adding 2 feet to the base flood elevation for non-critical structures or 3 feet for critical structures; or (3) construct to the 500-year flood elevation.

Increasing freeboard, or the elevation of a structure above the base flood elevation, can result in drastic savings in the form of lessening property damage, as well as insurance discounts. The 2008 Supplement to the 2006 Evaluation of the National Flood Insurance Program’s Building Standards validated the 2006 publication’s general hypothesis of freeboard’s benefits to homeowners and communities. This report provides information regarding NFIP premiums and construction costs as they correlate to different amounts of freeboard.

Dedicated professionals in Federal agencies have been working together over the past year to develop these standards to increase our country’s resilience to flood-related disaster.

Leadership in mitigation is when people champion the cause of stopping the devastation and destruction that so many have experienced from countless disasters. Powerful voices and action are vital, because despite the many scientific advances in meteorological prediction and building science that have taught us repeatedly that we can reduce property damage by how we build, there is a phenomena of cognitive dissonance (as explained well by our friend Margaret Davidson) in which many homeowners still say, “it won’t happen to me, so I don’t need to take action”.

This specific act of leadership will make the link between money to recover, to more resilient construction that may in turn not need future recovery funds. This is a big step on the path to resilience.

We applaud the President for his leadership on this critical issue.

To learn more about the new federal flood standard and implementation guidelines (currently available for public comment), visit: whitehouse.gov.

New FLASH Product: Online College Course on Residential Building Codes

Here’s an odd fact about residential building codes. Although they are universally accepted as vital to public safety (not to mention legally enforceable), very few colleges or universities systematically offer courses about their development, role, or application.

Until now.

Thanks to research and a project by FLASH, a new online course about residential building codes is available online. Clemson University will be the first to offer it next year, with additional universities and professional associations soon to follow.

The course will fill a critical knowledge gap in the education and development of future professionals who impact the disaster safety and resilience movement, including construction managers, engineers, planners, risk managers, meteorologists, and more. The 32 module course is the result of more than two years of collaboration, research, and work by our team with our academic, private, and public sector partners, including FEMA.

We started by conducting surveys and literature reviews to define the need for a building codes course in higher education. Then, we worked to identify an efficient way to teach the information and test for mastery.

We now know—and have documented—that many professionals working in architecture firms, civil engineering companies, and construction say building codes are a worthy academic topic. They wish they had learned about them in college, and they recommend them for today’s students.

There is also growing understanding inside colleges and universities that building code knowledge will help students better understand their industries.

For our part, as you can imagine, we see this knowledge as essential to creating a disaster-resilient nation.

That’s why we’re also making it available outside academic settings. In addition to use in college coursework under the guidance of a professor, the course can be taken as a free, self-directed, non-credit course.

Topics are broad-based with topics on the history, purpose, and practical applications of building codes through discussions and assignments in each module. Students will complete interesting projects and apply codes to real-world problems, so they have an overview of the development of codes as well as how they apply to the design and construction industries.

One of the most fundamental aspects of our work to advance disaster resilience is the need to embed basic appreciation and understanding of technical information into society. The next generation of professionals must appreciate that building codes are a nonnegotiable necessity to create resilient communities that withstand and bounce back from disasters. This new course is one effort to educate the creators of our future built environment.

From Smartphones to Building Codes, Updating is Essential if You Want to Avoid a Crash

Last week, I participated in an International Code Council (ICC) Roundtable in Washington D.C. along with architects, code officials, emergency managers, engineers, fire chiefs, homebuilders, insurers, scientists, and standards developers. We gathered to discuss a growing and disturbing trend: skipping building code updates.

The ICC publishes new consensus-based, model codes every three years. New codes combine the latest knowledge into affordable, practical ways to make buildings safer and more resilient. But for some reason, states like North Carolina have decided to skip on-time adoption of the new codes. They will forego the next set of code improvements and only consider them every six years. Why? We see no good reason. It’s not as if North Carolina doesn’t get its fair share of dangerous weather—floods, hurricanes or tornadoes. Think about it. They just experienced Hurricane Arthur in July.

Building science experts learn a great deal about building performance or failure in the aftermath of natural disasters. That knowledge provides insights into how to update codes and standards to make homes and buildings safer. The general public may not realize this, but it takes several years for states and cities to adopt each new batch of regulations. If they skip one cycle, as North Carolina intends, they could find their safety guidelines for construction falling 8 to 10 years behind.

While code improvements can save lives, they only work if everyone treats it as a process of continual improvement. Imagine what would happen if you didn’t update the software system for your smartphone on schedule. Eventually, the operating system will fail and the phone won’t work properly.

But the act of updating is even more important in building codes because, right or wrong, the codes are only meant to provide insights for the worst structure allowable by law. The code is not an ideal standard to reach for; it is the minimum level that must be maintained. And, if your home isn’t at least current to minimum standards, how well can it hold up to ordinary wear and tear, never mind severe weather? New code recommendations are not designed to create exorbitantly expensive structures that will last for centuries. They are intended to provide minimum life safety for occupants inside.

So it is much the same as the smartphone or any type of necessary information system. We may dread the hassle of downloading and understanding the updates because we are used to what we have. Change may be tough, but it is a fact of life.

Innovation ignored is advantage lost. And the public deserves to know.