Just days before Hurricane Irma made landfall, Michael Lingerfelt, FAIA, sold his house in Orlando, Fla. But the new owners weren't left in a lurch: Though the storm damaged surrounding residences, he says, “it was like God put a bubble around our house.”
Of course it was not the work of God but rather that of Lingerfelt, who had spent two decades reinforcing his house’s roof, windows, and structure, that saved the house. Lingerfelt knows a fair bit about preparedness, as a former president of the AIA Florida chapter and past chair of the disaster committee of Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park’s building and engineering arm where he worked for 25 years. He also serves as a board member for the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), a nonprofit consumer advocate for strengthening homes from natural and manmade disasters.
Many of his neighborhood’s houses were constructed before 2002, the year Florida enacted updates to its building code (following the lead of Miami-Dade County), and a decade after Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed 25,524 residences and damaged 101,241 others, according to the National Hurricane Center. After 2004's Hurricane Charley stormed through, a 2005 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report found that houses built after 2002 fared better than older homes. And strong anecdotal evidence has already emerged that in cities directly hit by this year’s Hurricane Irma, such as Naples, resiliency-focused building codes significantly mitigated potential damage.
Nationally, however, the inclusion of resilient design principles in building codes is a mixed bag. Recent moves to stalemate federal and state minimum standards have prompted architects and engineers to take a more vocal stance in advocating for stronger and enforceable codes. FEMA is proposing policies to incentivize states and municipalities to take a more proactive role in mitigating damage—and thus recovery costs. And five years after Hurricane Sandy, resilient design has become a marketing tool in New York.
This summer, as Florida neared the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 1021: Construction into law, which drops the requirement that the Florida Building Commission update the state code every three years in conjunction with the regular updates to the International Codes and the National Electrical Code. Critics of the bill, which include the AIA, AIA Florida, FLASH, and the Building Officials Association of Florida, lamented that it would ultimately erase the progress that the state has made in creating one of the nation’s most robust building codes. “We continue to believe in I-Codes and don’t want to move away from them,” says Vicki Long, Hon. AIA, executive vice president of AIA Florida.
Additionally, in August President Trump issued an executive order that revoked the federal flood risk management standard, a directive issued through a 2015 executive order made by President Obama and based on recommendations from Obama’s State, Local and Tribal Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. FEMA had not yet published a final rule on the directive, but the standard would have required federally funded structures to account for future changes in flood elevation by taking one of three approaches: using the best available climate science; building 2 feet or 3 feet above the 100-year flood elevation for standard projects or critical buildings, respectively; or to build to the 500-year flood elevation.
As its rationale, the Trump Administration cited reduced costs and lead times for approving infrastructure projects. However, proponents of the federal flood risk management standard, including the International Code Council, AIA, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and a number of insurance organizations, counter that when federally-funded projects fail to account for climate change, they ultimately cost taxpayers more when disaster does hit.
Signs of Progress
Because FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has relied on outdated floodplain maps, its insurance rates have failed to reflect actual flood risks, which consequently has contributed to the program’s massive debt. But the tide is slowly turning: FEMA has recently taken steps to encourage municipalities to adopt resiliency-focused building codes and standards in the hopes of mitigating damage from future disasters. Last year, as part of its public assistance program, the agency issued a policy that states “as a condition of assistance, buildings eligible for repair, replacement, or construction located in hazard-prone areas will use, at a minimum, the hazard-resistant standards referenced in the most recent edition of the model building code (IBC, IEBC, and IRC) as of the disaster declaration date.” Groups such as the BuildStrong, a coalition of emergency responders, insurers, engineers, architects, contractors, and code specialists, praised the policy.
FEMA is also considering creating a system under which states would need to pay a set amount of their own disaster recovery costs before it could start receiving FEMA reimbursement for the repair and replacement of public infrastructure damaged by a disaster—much like how insurance deductibles work. This “disaster deductible,” as FEMA calls it, also allows states to offset that cost by investing in infrastructure resiliency—which, in theory, would reduce ultimate disaster recovery costs for both the state and the federal governments.
Many questions remain about how such a program would be implemented and what role local governments would play, but its tenet aligns with comments that FEMA director Brock Long has made in the wake of recent hurricanes about the need for states to bolster their disaster recovery and assistance programs.
“I don’t want to call the disaster deductible … a silver bullet,” says Rachel Minnery, FAIA, the senior director of sustainable development policy at the AIA, “but I do think it will help to trigger a chain of responsibility [around how and where development occurs].”
Tipping Points and Roadblocks
In parts of the country less prone to natural disasters, a wide chasm often exists between writing and passing new building codes—and even enforcing existing minimum standards, says Tim Ryan, code administrator of Overland Park, Kansas, and a former National Institute of Building Sciences board member. Not surprisingly, municipalities become most receptive to scrutinizing their codes in the wake of tragedy.
In 2014, two years after Hurricane Sandy, New York City approved resiliency-focused changes to its building code, such as ensuring residents of high-rises have access to potable water in power outages. “The code changes happened quickly,” says Jill Lerner, FAIA, a principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates who helped write the "Post-Sandy Initiative," a policy paper that recommended changes to infrastructure, transportation, as well as codes and zoning. “Sandy was really fresh in everyone’s minds. If you tried to do it [before Sandy], you’d have gotten nowhere.”
Also fresh in the minds of developers were images of building evacuations and armies of people filling sand bags—not to mention the costs of recovery efforts. “We have not heard pushback from any developers on the code changes, and we do lots of commercial projects,” Lerner says. In fact, she notes, some developers have turned code compliance into marketing. “It’s a real selling card to say, ‘We have redundant power, we have elevators with separate generators.’ If a company is looking for a new headquarters, for example, they want to know they’ll have their lights on.”
Still, the devastating scale and frequency of recent disasters have some taking a step back and rethinking code fundamentals. “[Hurricane] Harvey was 5,000-year rain event, and the code does not account for a 5,000-year building,” Minnery says. “We wouldn’t look to design for anything outside of a 100- or 500-year rain event. So the question that is stirring right now is: Are the levels by which we base designing for the code even accurate anymore? Is a 100-year storm really a 10-year storm, at least in some places?”
Like others in the building industry, Minnery says she finds herself questioning the baseline assumptions of the code. “We’re really starting, quite frankly, to question the ground we’re standing on.”
To learn more about how building codes and design excellence can drive progress in construction standards, check out our ArchitectChats podcast episode "Dissecting the Code, Part 1: Raising Expectations." Past coverage on resilient design and building codes includes "Driving Resilient Design, One Edition at a Time" and "Resilient Design in Action: Diverse Approaches in a Complex Landscape."