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Long Before Disaster Hits, Building Codes Can Provide Damage Protection

Posted By Justin Koscher, Friday, November 2, 2018
Aerial images of the Florida Panhandle in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael seem almost post-apocalyptic in their illustration of the widespread devastation wrought by the storm’s powerful wind, storm surge, and precipitation. Yet nestled amid the rubble and debris, a few anomalies appear – homes and structures that weathered the disastrous conditions with little apparent damage even as neighboring houses lay in ruin.

Media coverage of the storm included profiles of some of these structures. The New York Times described a home “built for the big one” and the Washington Post highlighted low cost reinforcements that saved other homes. A common theme was that all of these homes were built with conscious attention to building code standards that could increase resiliency to extreme weather.

While concrete walls and extra nails and fasteners might shine as methods to prevent damage, boosting survivability of buildings through construction standards is only part of the broader picture. A suite of building codes that minimizes structural damage can also provide savings in normal operational circumstances. Buildings that maximize insulation and vapor barriers save money every day through reduced energy usage. But when disaster strikes, they have the added ability to keep the temperature of interior spaces habitable when electricity is knocked out for extended periods after a storm.

Building codes are the minimum standards for structures designed to protect public health, safety, and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings. They comprise a collection of guidelines related to all of the interconnected parts of a building: the roofing systems, wall components, fire prevention, safety features, plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems. They are designed to work together and often upgrades in one area can create momentum to make a building more robust overall: better windows may require updated flashing or insulation that will help the building with general durability and also increase its resistance to major events.  

As climate change continues to impact the built environment, the building industry has been keen to refocus on what sustainability really means. While earlier efforts at “green building” might have been to incentivize adding bike racks, today’s resiliency work goes to the very purpose of building—to create structures that will protect occupants from the elements, function well over time, and perform efficiently even in adverse circumstances.

Acknowledging the value of improved building codes, FEMA is even offering pre-disaster mitigation funding to states and jurisdictions that will incentivize owners to upgrade existing buildings to new standards, a process that can be particularly cost-effective when other renovations are already taking place. Though added costs may seem daunting, studies have shown that for each dollar of added cost in bringing buildings up to higher standards, there is almost $6 in savings from damage prevented, not to mention reduced costs from improved energy performance throughout the life of the building. The upgrades literally pay for themselves over time.

While no building code can guarantee complete protection from hazardous weather and natural disasters, adopting higher standards does greatly increase the odds that a building will have minimized damage and a more habitable internal environment in the aftermath of a storm. Taking advantage of the building technologies and construction methods that meet the most progressive codes is a decision that will often pay for itself many times over.

Tags:  building codes  buildings  Disaster Preparedness  resiliency  Stafford Act 

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Congress Turns to Building Codes for Disaster Preparedness

Posted By Justin Koscher, Tuesday, October 2, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2018
On two occasions this year, Congress enacted reforms for disaster preparedness that raise the profile and importance of building codes for purposes of planning and recovery. The nation’s disaster relief law – the Stafford Act – was first reformed as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act and later reformed with permanent fixes under the FAA Reauthorization bill passed in October 2018.

Under these amendments, building code adoption and enforcement are added as eligible activities and criteria used in grant programs aimed at reducing the impact of future disasters. In other words, states that act to adopt modern building codes and standards will be eligible for additional federal assistance in the event a disaster strikes. Moreover, the reforms allow damaged buildings to be rebuilt with federal support to better withstand future events, rather than merely restored to their pre-disaster condition.

These changes do not specifically address adoption and enforcement of energy codes. However, we expect that by encouraging the adoption and regular updating of the building codes that the energy code will also be positively affected.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the first six months of 2018 resulted in six weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each. Moody’s Analytics estimates that losses resulting from Hurricane Florence will cost between $38 billion and $50 billion. Damage to homes and business can contribute significantly to the total impact of a disaster.

Construction built to meet or exceed modern building codes can therefore play an important role in reducing the overall economic impact of natural disasters. According to the Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report published by the National Institute of Building Sciences, the model building codes developed by the International Code Council can save the nation $4 for every $1 spent.

Energy efficiency is a key part of a building’s – and a community’s – ability to withstand and quickly restore normalcy after a disaster. For example, a well-insulated building can comfort occupants when power is limited or cutoff. Building energy codes will also encourage the construction of more robust building envelope systems that can help avoid the crippling effects of moisture intrusion that is common in severe weather events.

The recognition by Congress that modern building codes deliver an answer to disaster preparedness is a positive for homeowners and businesses across the country. States now have the added incentive to prepare for tomorrow by enacting and enforcing better building codes today.

Tags:  building codes  Congress  Disaster Preparedness  Efficiency  energy codes  NOAA  resiliency  Stafford Act 

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