Better Data Is Key to Improved Building Codes

By Denise Johnson | February 28, 2014

For building codes, the past year has been one of flux. Superstorm Sandy and western state wildfires fueled debate on strengthening building codes to mitigate property damage and save lives.

New York City approved legislation to strengthen building codes, while Colorado decided to forgo legislation to strengthen its building codes.

And in an ironic twist, a Montana couple sued their municipality because of an ordinance requiring fire resistant roofing. They won the underlying suit due to a mistake in how the ordinance was approved and pursued attorney fees.

Knowledge is Power

Knowledge and better data are key to improving building codes, according to industry experts.

“The public is largely unaware that building codes are only a minimum. They’re always surprised to learn that they’re not some type of gold standard versus the reality, which is a minimum standard,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), a consumer advocacy group for strengthening homes formed 15 years ago in response to Hurricane Andrew.

The president of the Florida-based advocacy group said that educating officials at the local level is important.

“In fact, when we have been engaged on some of the more high-profile questions of whether or not to adopt a code and we have won the day, it has come as a direct byproduct of working with local leaders to help them understand why building safety, strength, durability, and everything about safety in a disaster starts with codes. Without it, you’re, out of the gates, weaker,” said Chapman-Henderson.

The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) is another organization interested in better building codes. IBHS’ mission, according to Debra Ballen, general counsel and senior vice president of Public Policy, is to reach out to public policy makers at the state and federal levels to make sure that the value of building codes is understood.

“We are not a lobbying organization but we do provide technical support and certainly a facility so they can better understand the benefits of mitigation,” said Ballen.

Recent instances of bad data prompted FLASH to create a new data analysis division.

“One of our other big problems — we can’t empower local leaders with good information if the data’s bad, and there’s a lot of bad data out there. Data quality has an underpinning, and it’s not just for policymakers. Think of the modelers who are relying on the data. The feedback we’re getting from the modelers, and some of the folks in the insurance industry in particular have become very alarmed because this data analysis is uncovering inherent flaws,” Chapman-Henderson said.

Despite roadblocks to educating lawmakers and consumers, Ballen said that, as a whole, the situation isn’t that bad.

“As a general matter, the building code story in the U.S. is a success story. The vast majority of states have adopted statewide codes and have pretty much kept them up to date, according to the three-year cycle that’s established by the International Code Council (ICC) or they may be one cycle behind, but not dreadfully behind,” Ballen said.

Chapman-Henderson shared similar sentiments.

“With respect to the code scenario overall, it’s not all bad news. The good news is, there is a growing unified voice and group of us out here who are in a position to shine light on reality, to support our elected officials with good data, and people are paying attention,” said Chapman-Henderson.

The IBHS executive said the system in place has improved building codes in the United States. The challenge, Ballen said, is to implement stronger codes.

For example, IBHS has proposed that three roof-related model code proposals be included in the 2015 International Residential Code (IRC).

“We just had some success with the most recent code cycle, which will actually be the 2015 residential code, in getting some IBHS proposals into that model building code. We’ve had challenges in some states to get that statewide code adopted,” said Ballen. “Other places, the challenge has been to make sure that there’s adequate code enforcement at the state level, at the local level and to make sure that licensing regimes are also in place so that people understand the codes…how the codes need to be put in place in an actual structure.”

According to a recent article by the IBHS in the latest issue of “Disaster Safety Review” magazine, all three IBHS proposals addressed roof cover underlayments — an effective way to reduce interior water damage when the roof cover is damaged or lost.

The IBHS proposed:

• Clarification of the installation and use of certain underlayments that can be used as an effective method for sealing roof decks;

• Consolidating underlayment requirements for all roof covering types in one section of the code to make them easier to find;

• Lowering the wind speed threshold triggering the enhanced underlayment provisions from 120 mph to 110 mph, so that more areas of the country prone to high winds would be covered by the underlayment requirements.

Code Implementation Challenges

But passing stronger building codes is not enough; the codes actually have to be implemented to do any good, Chapman-Henderson said.

“Even when we see a building code, in many cases, documented as adopted there is zero enforcement. It’s really just checking a box. It’s frankly just window dressing,” said Chapman-Henderson.

Outdated building codes are another problem.

The FLASH president said North Carolina is one example where the state is stepping back from the continuous adoption of the latest version of model codes.

“North Carolina is close to the finish line in deciding to wait every six years,” Chapman-Henderson said.

Another example is the city of Memphis, where 1990-era seismic codes have been in place even though the city experienced multiple earthquakes in the decades since.

“Memphis, they’re sitting in the heart of the New Madrid seismic zone,” said Chapman-Henderson. “The issue became one of national and international resilience because 30 percent of all U.S. goods are processed in Memphis each and every year.

One, because of the FedEx super hub, and two, because there’s also a major super hub for trucking there. Transit, commerce, organ donation, payroll, you name it; just think of what the implications would be for commerce around the globe if Memphis and its families were decimated by an earthquake.”

New Legislation on the Horizon

Federal legislation regulating building codes, known as The Safe Building Code Incentive Act, is being considered.

Chapman-Henderson said that under federal legislation, not only could better codes be put in place, but also communities affected by disasters would get more relief dollars.

Another piece of legislation, introduced by Florida Congressman Dennis Ross, H.R. 3298, known as the Disaster Savings Accounts Act of 2013, would allow individuals to set aside up to $5,000 annually in a tax-free account to use for disaster mitigation expenses.

Chapman-Henderson said Ross has been a proponent of better building for a long time.

“Natural disasters affect Floridians and Americans all across the country. While we don’t know very far in advance where or when exactly a disaster will strike, we can plan ahead for its arrival. Whether it’s a tornado, blizzard, earthquake, wildfire or hurricane, people should have the ability to set aside some of their money each year for disaster mitigation to purchase items that increase the safety of their home, like cement-fortified walls, storm shutters or generators. This legislation will incentivize people to plan ahead for their safety and reduce the need for taxpayer-funded government intervention in the event of a natural disaster,” Ross said in a statement on his bill.

According to Ballen, there is bipartisan support for this type of legislation.

“Democrats and Republicans alike understand that it is the right thing to do, but it gets caught up in some of the budget issues that are really very much external to it, notwithstanding that when you look at this issue and you realize that $1 invested in mitigation today will result in $4 in savings over the long-term, what better way to spend federal money than something where you can get a four-to-one benefit cost return,” said Ballen.

Chapman-Henderson agrees. “One thing about this whole issue is it’s a non-partisan issue in the sense that it is probably the most fundamental purpose of government, to insure the basic life safety of communities and their families and employers.”

Even the National Flood Insurance Program 2012 flood insurance legislation report issued recently weighed-in on the adoption of better building codes. The report found stronger building codes as part of the NFIP could help to reduce physical flood and other hazard losses.

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