Hurricane Season Roars Into View

Keep One Eye on the Weather and Another on Building Standards

By Rosalie Leone

Last September in the Tampa Bay area, we were preparing for the worst of Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm. Irma, like many of her predecessors, left a trail of destruction through numerous Caribbean islands as a Category 5 and prompted the evacuation of an estimated 6.5 mil-lion Florida residents. As the Atlantic hurricane season begins, who can for-get the names Maria, Harvey and Irma? That’s three Category 4 hurricanes in 2017, all making landfall in the U.S. in a period of 26 days. U.S. damages reached $265 billion, surpassing the old record of $211 billion in 2005.

Code Conflicts

As we prepare for another active hurricane season, what have law-makers been doing from 2017 and in 2018 to reform codes and regulations? Interestingly enough, in today’s political climate, it’s all about rolling back burdensome regulation. At face value, that is a good thing, but it must be weighed or tempered with the relevant risks at hand. During the 2017 session, Florida lawmakers approved a sweeping, yet controversial, bill reforming the construction industry. That policy is changing how the state’s building codes are updated, among many other things.

Before this new law went into effect, Florida adopted the latest edition of the International Code whole cloth. The International Codes or I-Codes are written by the International Code Council. The state would then remove language that’s irrelevant, such as snow regulations, and incorporate Florida-specific provisions, such as strict high-velocity hurricane zone (HVHZ) requirements. But now the state will simply review the international codes every three years and pick and choose which parts to adopt rather than adopting the whole code out-right. Critics of the bill, which include the American Institute of Architects and the Building Officials Association of Florida, are concerned that this new approach to code adoption will compromise the progress Florida has made in establishing one of the country’s strongest building codes. “We continue to believe in I-Codes and don’t want to move away from them,” said Vicki Long, executive vice president of AIA Florida.

Proponents of the bill feel differently. Kerri Wyland, a spokesperson for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, stated the new bill reduces “burdensome regulations while maintaining Florida’s gold standard of safety and innovation through an efficient and effective building code adoption process.”

The extensive damage from Harvey in Texas, on the other hand, has renewed debate in that state over stronger building codes. Currently, Texas has some of the most lenient code requirements in the country.

Looking Ahead

According to the ICC, “Creating a resilient nation requires diligent planning and innovative thinking. Incorporating new technologies in current building practices to achieve higher resiliency is exciting but can be expensive. Thankfully, using cur-rent codes and standards effectively throughout all phases of the building’s lifecycle increases the efficacy of new building technologies and offers a cost-effective path toward community stability during times of disaster. Resilience starts with strong, regularly updated, and properly implemented building codes.” Because increased costs of construction are often the main argument against the passage of stronger codes, the question seems to be: Has the reduction in damage from hurricanes exceeded the increased cost to comply with a strong statewide code? What’s the cost-benefit analysis for this?

A study of this very issue was published in May of last year. It looks at Florida’s adoption of a new statewide code (Florida Building Code—FBC) in 2001 after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. The study refers to ten years of insured loss data to show that the FBC reduced windstorm losses by up to 72 percent, which they then used to conduct a benefit-cost analysis (BCA). The study reveals that the FBC passes the BCA by a margin of $5 in reduced loss to $1 of added cost, with a payback period of approximately 10 years. Will this still hold true when Florida updates its code under the new code development process that was approved last year? Will Florida maintain its gold standard? That remains to be seen.

It seems as though last year’s hurricane season has brought to the fore-front the classic regulatory debate over building codes and standards: strong and well-enforced building codes and standards increase the costs of construction, but they also have the potential to reduce future property damage from hurricanes. Can we strike a balance between burdensome regulation and resilient communities? That’s what seems to be on the chopping block these days. But at what cost? What cost indeed. Let’s see what the 2018 season teaches.

Rosalie Leone is the CEO of the World Millwork Alliance.

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DWM Magazine

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