As communities are increasingly impacted by storms and wildfires, climate change is becoming more apparent. The World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin says that increases in methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide levels reached all-time highs in 2021, since the WMO began record keeping in 1983.
While efforts are being made to slow global warming and cut greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. will continue to feel the effects of stronger storms and hurricanes, outlandish temperatures, relentless wildfires, and water and food shortages. As Florida is rebuilding from Hurricane Ian’s destructive path, the state was left with an estimated $41 billion to $70 billion in damages of insured and uninsured properties, according to CoreLogic.
Flood loss alone reached estimates of $8 billion to $18 billion because of storm surge and inland flooding. However, Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did help city planners minimize flood risks in certain areas and better plan residential development. In addition to protection from SFHAs, many homes withstood damage better because of the state’s building codes.
“Florida incorporated significant changes to its building codes following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and again following Hurricane Charley in 2004. At first glance, homes and multifamily buildings constructed to these updated building codes appear to have suffered little or no wind damage from Hurricane Ian,” says Gary Ehrlich, director of construction codes and standards at the NAHB.
Diving further into Florida’s customized model codes, FEMA press secretary Jeremy Edwards adds, “Following Hurricane Michael in 2018, the Florida Building Commission incorporated several recommendations made based on observations related to building performance. These updates, in addition to newer construction projects, performed significantly better in Hurricane Ian than older adjacent buildings that were not built to those modern codes.”
Where Codes Come In
If the codes established in Florida can help homes withstand minimal damage, are these codes also helpful to reduce risks in other areas of the country?
“Model building codes are advancing how they address sustainability and future conditions. While building performance is improving, building design, code, and construction requirements have limitations. Codes are minimums, and every hazard event is unique,” says Edwards. “While Hurricane Ian’s wind speeds were generally well below a design event, the amount of surge was substantial. Storm surge caused significant and extensive damage in highly, densely populated areas. Communities should reevaluate siting, land use, and their risk tolerance as a whole and rebuild in a calculated, measured approach to minimize future losses.”
Regarding these codes nationwide, Ehrlich says that the International Residential Code (IRC) and International Building Code (IBC) already account for the risk of damaging hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and other areas at risk of high winds such as Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. He shares, “Where editions of the IRC and IBC have been adopted in these areas, buildings constructed to those codes have performed well in hurricanes and other storms.”
To reduce hazards and be more resilient, various codes and standards can be adopted. For Florida, this came in the form of its 2018 edition of the International Code Council’s codes (I-Codes) with amendments. The 7th edition Florida Building Code customized the model codes to meet the state’s specific priorities and increase natural hazard resistance.
Codes are diverse and ever-changing as new knowledge and technology develops. In terms of wildfires, the International Wildland Urban Interface Code, first published in 2003 and updated in 2021, reduces risks by regulating materials and construction, vegetation management, structure density and location, emergency vehicle access, and adequate water supply.
Looking ahead to updates regarding storms, Ehrlich says, “The 2024 editions of the IRC and IBC, which just completed their development cycle, incorporate the latest wind speed maps and other hazard maps from the ASCE 7 standard ‘Minimum Design Loads and Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures.’ For the most part, there are not significant changes to the code provisions for wind or flood as it relates to housing. There are anticipated to be new provisions to improve the performance of soffits in wind events, as well as to ensure proper installation of vinyl siding.”
Saving Money Through Resiliency
Following Hurricane Ian, FEMA deployed a Preliminary Mitigation Assessment Team (pre-MAT) to gather info on how communities can build back even stronger. Edwards says, “MATs bring federal, state, local, and private-sector stakeholders together to conduct disaster assessments in the field. The pre-MAT’s initial findings show that when buildings were elevated higher as a result of freeboard requirements in the building code, they experienced less flood damage.”
Both Ehrlich and FEMA stress that while codes reduce damage, codes should ultimately focus on life safety and structural performance of the homes and buildings we reside in. In FEMA's Guide to Expanding Mitigation, it states the human value of code adoption includes “more lives saved, fewer people injured, and fewer people displaced in the event of a natural disaster.”
A 2020 Building Codes Save nationwide study by FEMA reported that the cumulative losses avoided by applying building codes are projected to grow to over $132 billion by 2040. Further, a 2019 National Institute of Building Sciences report shows that current international codes save $11 per $1 spent at a national level. “FEMA encourages jurisdictions to adopt current model codes,” says Edwards.
As with any discussion of upgrading or renovating existing homes, there’s often a fine balance between the benefits and expenses. For wildfires, a report by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety and Headwaters Economics revealed that the additional cost of building a new wildfire-resistant home in California was only $2,800. While no such report has been made in terms of hurricane mitigation, hurricane windows alone can range from $55 to $62 per square foot, according to HomeAdvisor.
Code adoption seems compelling in terms of safety and sustainability—especially in high-hazard and high-growth areas like Florida—but the ability to enforce codes on existing homes is limited.
“U.S. Census data shows 70% of the housing stock in the United States was built before even the first editions of the IRC and IBC were published in 2000,” Ehrlich shares. "The majority of damage seen in natural disasters is to this older housing stock. Any effort to significantly reduce damage due to natural disasters will need to focus on upgrading this older stock, rather than further raising the bar on new homes, which represents a small portion of the housing stock and demonstrably perform better when exposed to natural hazards.”
In addition to upgrading existing homes, Ehrlich notes that many jurisdictions lack funding to establish building departments and train building officials on proper building code enforcement. The lack of funding also inhibits the ability of some jurisdictions to establish regulatory processes to adopt and update codes. He adds, “More funding and guidance on cost-effective retrofit strategies is needed to help upgrade the existing housing stock to meet current building codes.”
For the Sunshine State, an example of funding toward better assessing risks was made this year. “States and communities across the nation are prioritizing and better understanding their own risk. In Florida, earlier this year, the state awarded over $20 million in state funds to develop or update vulnerability assessments for inland and coastal communities. This funding will help ensure communities, and the state as a whole, are better prepared to deal with the impacts of sea-level rise, intensifying storms, and flooding,” says Edwards.
Incentivizing and supporting code adoption, the Biden-Harris administration announced in the summer that the National Initiative to Advance Building Codes will “provide incentives and support for communities to adopt current building codes and standards by providing technical assistance, implementing proven strategies and best practices across all relevant agencies in the federal government, and using mapping tools that help track code adoption based on energy efficiency and local hazards such as flood, earthquake, tornado, and hurricane risk.”
Part of the initiative includes FEMA’s Building Codes Strategy, which will integrate and, wherever legally permissible, require current building codes in its programs, policies, and guidance, and target FEMA outreach, education, and technical support efforts to increase building code adoption in underserved and vulnerable communities.
While in good effort, the NAHB is concerned that the strategy’s emphasis on adopting building codes without amendment will “prevent communities from making adjustments to code requirements to reflect more accurate understanding of risks that may not be captured by national maps and hazard projections or relax overly conservative provisions that harm housing affordability.”
The International Code Council (ICC) Online Governmental Consensus Vote recently ended for ICC new building codes and revisions. For NAHB, it uses a three-pronged approach to assess the impact of a new code requirement and focuses on the homeowners first. “Refocusing codes on producing decent, safe, affordable housing for all income levels including first-time and lower-income home buyers will reduce community barriers to adopting new codes,” Ehrlich concludes.
To identify the status of building code adoption relative to known climate and other natural hazard risks in each community, with a particular focus on code adoption in underserved areas, FEMA will also utilize and update the Building Code Adoption Tracking portal to help local policymakers advance adoption of modern, hazard-resistant building codes.