Exploring Innovative Intersections of Building Codes and Resilience

Last week, we released our latest building code commentary, Disaster Resilience Rising Means the Time is Right with six recommendations for how to innovate the current U.S. building code system.

So in our next six blog posts, we are going to examine each of our recommendations, one by one, with an eye on how to take each of these ideas forward. Our first recommendation is to:

  1. “Establish a standing code and standard development process to accelerate post-catastrophe, forensic engineering insights into model codes and standards.”

In the Commentary, we highlighted different organizations that investigate post-disaster building performance. We discussed the myriad scientific and technical stakeholders in the building realm, with a focus on FEMA’s Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT)—the signature body that diagnoses building performance and failure causes after major U.S. disasters. Once we understand the MAT and similar systems, along with historic building failure findings, it becomes clear that these investigations are essential to future building performance in deadly, costly catastrophes.

Our recommendation is simple. It proposes an enhancement of the current post-disaster building “crash investigation” system by establishing a standing mechanism to accelerate incorporation of building performance findings into model building codes. The current International Code Council development process creates model building codes on three year cycles. We would like to see disaster insights incorporated into the building codes more rapidly than three years, so that minimum construction standards reflect the costly lessons learned from disaster without delay.

It is important to note that not all post-disaster insights are fashioned into codes from the top down. Often, as in Florida post-Andrew and New York post-Sandy, local and state officials update codes with ground-up disaster insights. But this means that only those affected areas benefit from those costly lessons. Why not use model codes to ensure the lessons benefit a larger population? Either way, whether through national model code development or from local amendments, prompt integration of improved building practices into building codes is an essential way to ensure such failures only happen once.

Thanks to dedicated engineers and scientists, we already do an excellent job of analyzing the successes and failures of building performance after earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and even wildfires. And the faster we integrate these costly insights into the way we build, the better off we will all be because deadly lessons learned once shouldn’t be learned twice.

We look forward to working with our partners at the International Code Council to fast track these lessons to benefit all in harm’s way.

The Only Thing Worse Than No Mitigation is the Wrong Mitigation

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After decades of effort, the marketplace for tornado safe rooms and shelters is finally rising. Consider that more than 3,000 tornado shelter permits have been issued in the City of Moore, Oklahoma since the March 25 tornado outbreak, and officials project that 7,800 Moore homes (40%) now have the essential safety feature.

Success here can be traced to relentless commitment to perfecting the building science by visionaries like FLASH Leadership Partner Dr. Ernst Kiesling and the FEMA Building Science team; strategic messaging by our many partners including the NSSA; and cost/benefit studies by noted economists like Dr. Kevin Simmons of Austin College.

The progress is significant, but enter the next challenge. Safe rooms aren’t as prevalent as they should be throughout all vulnerable areas yet, and not all tornado safe rooms are created equal.

So now that the market is responding, we must reemphasize the message that safe rooms and shelters should be constructed or fabricated to the most modern, stringent guidance or standards of either FEMA P-320, P-361 or ICC/NSSA 500. A nonconforming, poorly constructed safe room can do more harm than good by creating a false sense of security and putting families at risk.

For this reason, we took the opportunity at the 2015 NAHB International Builders Show “Home Safe Home Showcase” with our Legacy Partners FEMA and Portland Cement Association (PCA) to ask the questions that families want answered. The video series provides an overview of five types of safe rooms that can be built during new construction or added to an existing structure above-ground, below-ground, inside the home, outside in the garage, or in the yard.

Builders at the show were pleasantly surprised to learn that most types of safe rooms can be installed and completed in a day with the average cost for an 8-by-8-foot room from $8,000 to $9,500. Each offers different advantages, but all—when built right—provide the best available life safety protection against tornadoes. And it is essential that we point out the need to use a tested door.

One family knows firsthand the value of a safe room. Kevin and Sarabeth Harrison survived the deadly April 27, 2011 tornado that descended upon Athens, Alabama, by taking refuge in their concrete-block safe room with their two young children. The Harrisons have since moved to another home, installed another type of safe room, and have had to take shelter in that safe room during a tornado warning. We captured their inspirational story in our A Tale of Two Homes – Tornado, and it went viral, all the way to the National Building Museum “Designing for Disaster” exhibit.

Since then, the myth that there is nothing you can do to protect against a tornado has been under siege by accurate, life-saving information that a safe room is the right place to weather a tornado.

As stories of disaster survival often do, the Harrison video helps people understand that they can survive. Our new video series will help families understand exactly how to do it.

We Can Build Better in Advance of Tornadoes

In light of last night’s deadly tornadoes in Illinois, I am raising (again) the issue of building in tornado zones using the new, groundbreaking construction philosophy that emerged after the catastrophic Tuscaloosa, Joplin and Moore outbreaks from recent years. The engineering case is strong, and last week Dr. Kevin Simmons, an Austin College economist, added to the economic case as well – http://bit.ly/1auWHdu.

Clearly, it is time to spread the word to leaders that by adding $1 per square foot to the cost of construction and incorporating tornado safe rooms to homes in high-wind zones, we can forever alter the deadly pattern of death and destruction that follow the annual, typical tornado outbreaks that will continue.

Below are excerpts from our May 2013 paper, “Building Codes: The Foundation for Resilience” that describe the engineering breakthrough.

For more than three years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) building science engineers, and leading academic researchers have called for a new way of building to meet the challenge of saving lives while also preserving property in the face of tornado outbreaks. Their work, published as the Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy, is landmark in that it defies traditional assertions that “there is nothing you can affordably build to withstand tornadoes.”[1]

The research-informed effort comes in response to field investigations that documented a pattern of disproportionate structure collapse in tornado outbreaks. They point out how even small design changes can make a difference, and they have developed guidelines to estimate the tornado-induced loads. This will provide reasonable targets for designers to use in their future work. Homes built to these newer, research-informed guidelines will have the advantage of better wall bracing, improved roof tie-downs and overall stronger connections.

According to Dr. David O. Prevatt, Associate Professor of the University of Florida, Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can keep a roof on a house, and our research demonstrates it is possible to design and build houses that protect people and structures from deadly winds. Techniques developed and implemented in Florida that have reduced hurricane losses can be applied and used in houses to also reduce tornado losses.”

This novel new approach is buoyed by the finding by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) that even if a tornado is EF-4 or EF-5, 95 percent of the damage generated occurs at EF-3 and below. What this means is that the enhanced practices can bring material increases in home strength. Moreover, since 90 percent of all tornadoes never exceed EF-2 with winds of up to 135 mph, wind-resistant building practices like those included in the code can save lives and dramatically improve building performance in nearly every tornado event.

We believe that this is possibly one of the most important breakthroughs in high wind design during the past two decades as it offers an affordable innovation that can potentially improve life safety and economic well-being for millions of residents throughout the U.S.

Homes are a long-term investment. Eighty percent of our homes are more than 20 years old, and most of them will be around for at least another 30 years. Thus, it’s important not only for individual families to make careful choices now as they rebuild, but each community must acknowledge its responsibility to rebuild in a resilient way.

In January of 2015, during the International Builders Show, we analyzed and released updated NOAA Storm Prediction Center data showing that nearly 90% of U.S. counties experience tornado watches. This information underscores the point that the impact of building differently is not just beneficial to those who are directly hit by tornadoes. Having a stronger home and a safe room will bring beneficial peace of mind to all in harm’s way as they hunker down, worry, and wonder if their town will be next.

 [1] Van de Lindt, John W., et al. 2013. “Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy.” Available: http://ascelibrary.org/doi/abs/10.1061/%28ASCE%29ST.1943-541X.0000622

Youth Preparedness Takes Center Stage—White House Style

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In January, I had the great honor of anchoring a delegation of FLASH partners to participate in a White House recognition ceremony celebrating the National Strategy for Youth Preparedness Education.

FEMA launched the initiative in September of 2014 with a goal to bring children into the disaster-safety movement through innovative programs like America’s PrepareAthon!; the American Red Cross Pillowcase Project; and several of our own, including StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes® at INNOVENTIONS at Epcot® at the Walt Disney World® Resort.

This was not a first-time award or recognition for StormStruck, but it is especially meaningful to us as some considered the project quite risky before opening in 2008. Not everyone shared our vision of using the proven Disney formula for “edu-tainment” to carry the message of disaster-safety and mitigation to guests of all ages. Some doubted that StormStruck could leverage storytelling to empower future generations to prepare and choose resilient structures. Some even considered tackling disaster topics in an entertainment venue inappropriate, not serious enough.

But we were confident. We had committed partners. And we were right.

Millions of happy guests later, we realized we had created something extraordinary—and not just for the kids. Visitors from around the globe, including disaster victims, have come through our 4D storm, played our dynamic rebuilding game, and enjoyed the myriad show elements. And periodic guest surveys demonstrate that they not only get the point of the venue, but they want everyone in harm’s way to come, learn, and enjoy.

Think about it. As parents, we know that our children can influence our decision-making about everything from where to grocery shop to social-change movements. Consider the generation of children who grew up recycling and the impact on the green movement. It’s a two-way formula. Our kids wear seat belts, and eschew cigarette smoking. We could hardly do differently.

In FEMA’s Preparedness in America report, household survey findings indicate that “households with school children who brought home preparedness materials were significantly more likely to report preparing than those who did not receive materials: they were 75 percent more likely to have a household plan they had discussed as a family, and twice as likely to have participated in a home drill.”

One way or another, our kids influence our behavior, and that makes a focus on youth preparedness doubly effective.

Before I joined the disaster-safety movement, I had the privilege to work with highway safety advocates on issues from bicycle helmets to drunk-driving prevention. One day, I learned firsthand how even incidental messaging can affect children. My daughter was about four years old, and frequently accompanied me to safety events. One day right after I had put her in her car seat to head out, I got behind the wheel and picked up my can of Tab (years before Diet Coke). All of a sudden, I heard a little voice from the back say, “Mommy, don’t drink and drive!”

I was amazed. For just a moment, I considered trying to explain the difference between alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, but immediately abandoned the idea. I realized that she had gotten a safety message, embraced it, and was going to share it. I said, “Okay of course,” threw away the soda and drove on.

The experience reinforced for me the power and responsibility we have when messaging to children. In my work since then, I have learned that unlike the scare tactics of the past, today’s successful initiatives put children and adults alike in charge of safety and resilience by engaging without frightening. In true Disney style, we make them the hero.

According to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, “Children who learn about emergency preparedness experience less anxiety during an actual emergency or disaster. This National Strategy will encourage communities and organizations to give children and their families the information they need to prepare for disasters.”

FEMA has it figured out. Youth preparedness isn’t just about youth. Young people both learn and teach.

And if we’re smart, we will remain their students.

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.