October 25, 2017

Unique Hurricane Season Offers Tough Test for Building Codes

by Joe Erb

We’re on the tail end of one of the most active hurricane seasons in history. Hurricane Harvey brought catastrophic flooding to Houston; Irma tore up the Florida peninsula; Maria and Jose made a devastating impact on the Caribbean region including Puerto Rico.

From an industry perspective, I’ve been keeping track of the storms’ collective impact regarding building codes. You may remember that the Florida Building Code, which is often noted as the toughest in the United States, was in part conceived as a response to 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. Floridians still remember the damage wrought, affecting an unprepared Florida that hadn’t seen a storm of similar magnitude in many decades prior. It was the costliest disaster in American history to that point.

As such, Irma brought with it the Florida Building Code’s biggest test since its establishment. Reports indicate that the code did its job. Per National Real Estate Investor, commercial real estate suffered minor damage outside of the Keys where the storm’s impact was most significant.

Further, a recent study conducted by The Regulatory Review has demonstrated that over a ten year period, the Florida Building Code has had a positive impact on homes throughout the state:

During the period 2001 to 2010, Florida experienced seven land-falling hurricanes, four of which reached category three or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength. In our analysis, we first quantified the reduction of residential property wind damage due to the implementation of the FBC using realized insurance policy, claim, and paid insured loss data across the entire state of Florida spanning the years 2001 to 2010 provided to us by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). We found that homes built to the FBC suffered 53 percent less damage than homes built prior to the implementation of the FBC. In addition, homes built to the FBC were less likely to file a claim than were older homes. Taken together, the full reduction in damage to new versus older homes amounts to 72 percent.

It’s worth considering whether not any other states will move on building codes in the wake of this unique storm season. Consider that while Florida’s codes are stringent, those in Texas are some of the country’s most lenient. Hurricane Harvey has sparked some conversations around the state, along with some of the age-old debate around cost and benefit for tighter codes. Per a recent, long feature in Bloomberg Businessweek after Harvey:

Nationally, insurers favor tighter building codes and fewer homes in vulnerable locations. Homebuilders and developers want to keep houses as inexpensive as possible. As the costs of extreme weather increase, that fight has spilled over into politics: The federal government wants local governments to adopt policies that will reduce the cost of disasters, while many state and local officials worry about the lost tax revenue that might accompany restrictions on development.

The consequence of loose or nonexistent codes is that storm damage is often worse than need be. “Disasters don’t have to be devastating,” says Eleanor Kitzman, who was Texas’ state insurance commissioner from 2011 to 2013. She now runs a company called MyStrongHome that helps homeowners upgrade their homes to qualify for lower homeowners’ insurance premiums. “We can’t prevent the event, but we can mitigate the damage.”

As we know well, fenestration is a critical part of hurricane resistance and thus a key part of the code conversation. Tougher codes could mean higher impact ratings and more rigorous testing and approvals. We’ll be on the lookout for any indication of change.

Questions or comments? Contact me directly at Joe.Erb@Quanex.com.

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Posted: October 25, 2017 by Joe Erb Filed under: building, codes, fenestration