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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.