Even As the Ground Shakes Near Memphis, Leaders Chose Denial Over Disaster Safety

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Photo Credit: WBIR

Last week, I used this forum to discuss the first of our six recommendations to innovate the U.S. building code system published in our new commentary, Disaster Resilience Rising Means the Time is Right. This week, I am scheduled to discuss our second recommendation:

2. Optimize property protection opportunities in model   code and standard development by balancing all of the existing values, including public health, safety, and welfare.

This is a timely discussion in light of action underway at the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission where it is clear that some Tennessee officials are missing the critical linkage between public policy and disaster safety.

The purpose of the International Residential Code is “to establish minimum requirements to safeguard the public safety, health and general welfare….” Unfortunately, the issue of cost is often the loudest argument against the adoption of modern building codes. But the welfare of the family, or families, during the expected lifespan of a home should be given equal weight in building code considerations.

Today, however, the upfront cost to the builder or first buyer has eclipsed the critical, long-term value of welfare.

And this is exactly the problem in Memphis and Shelby County, where city council members and county commissioners are poised to complete passage of amendments that will further weaken home bracing requirements by as much as 50 percent.

Some background: In 2014, after decades of delay, these same leaders implemented a compromise that required modern earthquake bracing for the first time. However, that compromise fell short of the model code by about 30 percent, allowing homebuilders to construct homes below the suggested levels of minimum, national life-safety codes.

Now they are moving to further reduce requirements essential for safety in not just earthquakes, but floods, and high winds. They are suggesting short-term cost savings as a justification for this eye-popping action, ignoring long-term home quality.

They are also placing unknowing families in potentially deadly jeopardy.

According to news reports, Councilman Reid Hedgepeth constructed a $750,000 home last summer, and identified the cost for seismic requirements at about $10,000, or 1.33% of the total construction cost. By his support of the new amendments, are he and his peers (including Councilman Jim Strickland) saying that a one percent savings is worth the risk that a home will collapse in an earthquake, float away in a flood, or tear apart in a windstorm?

This latest Memphis situation is another incident in a long-running back and forth between local homebuilder interests and a coalition of academics, architects, emergency managers, engineers, risk communicators, safety advocates, and scientific researchers. The coalition has gone to extraordinary lengths to work with local builders and elected officials by providing extensive, third-party studies to overcome the fears of undue cost; by bringing forth national experts with unassailable building science performance data to explain the value of the new building practices; and much more.

Even after all this sincere effort, and a 3.5 magnitude earthquake next door in Tipton County this week, local leaders are still willing to abandon the needed upgrades.

Last August, the South Napa Valley earthquake provided proof positive of phenomenal building performance driven by use of the new model codes. Sadly, Memphis and Shelby County have gone barely a year with their improved code, and soon they will again build in a way that is certain to fall short when the worst happens there.

According to the Oxford dictionary, welfare is defined as, “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or a group.”

With the amendments close to passage, all we are left to do is etch the names of the officials involved into the public record. That way, when the worst happens, we can recognize the path to diminished “health, happiness, and fortunes” for residents of Western Tennessee. 

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.

Connect. Collaborate. Champion. The Resilience Revolution Needs You at the 2014 FLASH Annual Conference.

The word “revolution” comes from the Latin revolutio, “a turnaround”, and generally refers to change over a short period of time. So, given that we have been promoting disaster resilience for decades, you might wonder why we themed our 2014 Annual Conference, Resilience Revolution.

Here’s why: this is our time. We believe that for a host of reasons, including Hurricane Sandy, mission convergence with the climate resilience community, and an increased global interest in severe weather, our best opportunity to advance the cause of better building is right now.

But it won’t last indefinitely. We need disaster safety stakeholders to come together before the opportunity wanes. We need you to join us at the FLASH Annual Conference.

Once you arrive, you’ll find that sparks fly, in a good way. Journalists interview leaders. Panelists talk and debate. Experts meet others outside of their specialties.

Manufacturers huddle with researchers. Social psychologists share insights with communicators. After two days, everyone leaves with a better handle on how to motivate behavior change through policy leadership, marketplace innovation, and ground-up programs.

Ours is a gathering of public, private, and nonprofit organizations assembled in the spirit of one mission—strengthening homes and safeguarding families.

This year we will bring back Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel and former CNN Bureau Chief John Zarrella. Researchers from MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and my own alma mater, University of Florida will dazzle us with breakthrough thinking. FEMA leaders, NOAA leaders, and the National Hurricane Center Directors past and present will all join us.

Corporate leaders from various sectors, including BASF—The Chemical Company, Kohler Generators, The Home Depot, Huber, Portland Cement Association, Simpson Strong-Tie Co., Target, USAA, Walt Disney World, and WeatherPredict Consulting, Inc. will help us find opportunities to advance resilience through the marketplace. These are essential voices.

We’ll share best practices with the voluntary responder organizations like the HandsOn Network and Lutheran Social Services.

We’ll talk about saving lives, preventing injuries, and shielding structures from nature’s destructive forces with academics that have dedicated their lives and careers to the cause.

We’ll have policy leaders from Florida League of Cities and the Texas Office of Public Insurance Counsel as well as mayors who have dealt with the catastrophic effects of natural disasters. These are resilience true believers, especially those that have brought their cities back to life after earthquakes, hurricanes, and more.

Last but not least, you’ll meet the most important stakeholders—real families who have survived disasters. They serve as inspiration for us all.

Our conference is a rich cross-section of opportunities, and you never know what ideas will be sparked by a casual conversation. I remember when informal brainstorming at our conference led to an idea that is now the award-winning StormStruck A Tale of Two Homes® experience at Epcot® at the Walt Disney World® Resort. That’s real magic.

We might not come up with the next educational experience at a theme park, but I am certain you will leave our conference with at least ten new ideas.

Margaret Mead famously stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We can’t advance disaster resilience without your commitment. Please join us while the revolution is still underway.

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.