Assuming Responsibility: The Latest Chapter in Improvements for Water Penetration from Hurricanes

By Jason Seals

Pandemics aren’t the only natural disasters we will face this year. As the annual hurricane season gets underway, we are reminded of industry efforts to improve the performance of building envelopes— especially in Florida. Since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, initial efforts concentrated on protecting buildings from structural damages and preventing over-pressurization of their interiors. Now that buildings are surviving severe storms with more regularity, attention has now shifted to a new area of potential damage: water penetration resulting from severe wind-driven rain.

The starting point for better addressing this issue includes quantifying how much—if any—water penetration is acceptable amid a hurricane, and then determining how best to test products to see if that level is exceeded. To do so, the Structural Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of the Florida Building Commission (FBC) formed the Fenestration Water Resistance Workgroup in 2019. Comprised of representatives from numerous stakeholders, the group includes fenestration manufacturers and the Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance (FGIA). It’s been tasked with evaluating Florida Building Code requirements for fenestration in mid- and high-rise buildings, but requirements resulting from the study may filter down to low-rise residences as well.

Identifying the Culprit

Some work group members advocate that buildings remain completely leak-free during hurricanes and that the industry standard water penetration test pressure, currently set at 15 to 20% of structural design pressure (DP), should be increased to 50 to 100% of DP. A major objection to this from the fenestration industry is that any claims of widespread leakage directly attributable to the fenestration are anecdotal. Without a comprehensive forensic investigation of reported leaks to determine the actual source of water penetration, recommendations to increase fenestration water test pressure requirements may be premature. Over the course of their work, it became clear to the Structural TAC and the FBC that more research was needed before any changes could be recommended.

To better identify whether water penetration amid hurricanes and tropical storms is an issue for Florida residents, the University of Florida (UF) Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment (ESSIE) proposed a research study to be funded by the FBC. After several iterations and considerable input from industry stakeholders and associations, the FBC approved a research project to evaluate Florida code requirements for fenestration water resistance, to determine whether or not they should be strengthened, and whether installation and maintenance of fenestration and the building envelope should be better defined and monitored. To accomplish this, the workgroup delivered an interim report on April 17, 2020, with a final Phase 1 report due June 30, 2020. A Phase 2 testing project will also be conducted if deemed worthwhile.

The workgroup is examining the effectiveness of current standards for building envelope testing and product approvals and is compiling a summary of homeowner experiences during hurricanes, versus their expectations for water infiltration resistance. Do homeowners expect a completely leak-free environment after a hurricane? If so, how much are they willing to pay to achieve this? If not, then how much water is acceptable?

Ultimately, any wish list might prove incompatible with current building envelope technologies, performance testing and expectations, but it could be helpful to develop enhanced testing criteria and guidelines for future fenestration designs. A realistic balance must be struck between cost and keeping the building completely dry, so the results of the research study will have to be evaluated from the standpoint of what constitutes a “sweet spot.”

Jason Seals is certification services manager, fenestration, for the Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance.

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DWM Magazine

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