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Building to a Higher Standard

World Cement,

Threats to the built environment impact us all. No matter where you live, the threat of natural and manmade disasters is very real. Many home owners mistakenly believe their code-compliant home is “safe enough”, that it will stand up to the devastating impact of strong storms and structure fire. Current regulations provide strong safeguards for residents, while providing only minimal protection for the home itself. Stronger building codes, designed to provide enhanced property protection, would reduce the economic, social, and environmental impact of major disasters.

Fewer severe tornadoes, more damage cost

Decade after decade, the cost of community recovery continues to increase after disaster strikes. This increase in insurance and government losses might suggest a greater number and severity of storms. This in fact is not the case. For example, the curve in Figure 1 shows the dramatic cost increases in property loss caused by tornados in the US since the 1950s. Figure 2 represents the number of stronger tornados (EF3 to EF5) that have occurred during this same period. In the last 30 years, the cost of damage has increased 1700%, while the incidence of strong tornados has actually declined. Similar findings can be demonstrated for damage from hurricanes. The cause of this apparent contradiction can be found in the weakening of building codes and standards over time.

Figure 1. Combined tornado and storm property losses since 1950 (2010 Dollars – Property Claims Service Data)

Figure 2. Tornado frequency since 1950s (National Weather Service Data)

Weakened Property Protection Requirements

In the 1950s, the Federal government created minimum property standards that dictated how residential projects, backed by government loans, were to be constructed. These requirements made sure the buildings were built well, and would provide effective fire resistance to better ensure the safety of residents and the survivability of the structure itself.

The development of consensus based model building codes has gradually changed the objective of code. The priority now is to reduce loss of life, which is important, but it’s not the whole story. As Figure 1 indicates, by permitting cheaper and less robust construction systems, these newer codes often result in excessive damage and loss to the structure from natural disaster or fire. In fact, a Brookings Institute study for the National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that one-third of all buildings in existence in 2008 will be demolished by 2030 simply because they were not designed to last any longer. Most were built to code in the last several decades.

Time to rethink priorities

The green building movement has shown we can change the way we build with meaningful results. It’s possible to create healthier indoor environments to benefit people, reduced environmental burdens to preserve our planet, while at the same time offering lower operating costs and other economic benefits that enhance profits. It is time to rethink priorities: building stronger, more resilient buildings will reduce the environmental toll of disasters.

Consider the devastation Hurricane Katrina caused in Louisiana and surrounding gulf coast communities in August 2005. In New Orleans, the social fabric was nearly ruined when 80% of the city flooded, destroying or damaging over 134 000 residential units. The population dropped more than 50% because people had nowhere to live. By 2011, the population was still only 76% of pre-storm numbers. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center estimates over 1 million people were displaced. Lives disrupted; a local economy suffering a long-term reduction in its available consumers and workforce.

Private insurance payouts for 1.7 million claims including damage to vehicles, buildings and businesses totalled over US$41 billion. In addition, the taxpayer supported National Flood Insurance Program paid over US$16 billion for flood damage. Society cannot continue to absorb the social, environmental and economic costs of uprooted lives, massive waste and destruction, and multi-billion dollar loss.

Stronger codes mean greater community continuity and sustainability

The solution to reducing devastation and associated costs lies in building better, bringing back an emphasis on preserving the long-term structural integrity of our built environment. More robust buildings, better able to stand up to the impact of strong storms and structure fire, will enhance the sustainability of our communities and the lives of residents who live there.

It starts with adequate protection of support services, fire protection, police, waste treatment, water and power. The investment cost of equipment and emergency vehicles alone justifies more robust buildings to house them. Add stronger built homes and businesses and you reduce losses and overall disruption, enabling more residents to remain following a disaster, returning to jobs, reestablishing productive lives. The local economy can continue to function, and community functions can recover more quickly.

Stronger building codes, with an adequate property protection emphasis to complement life safety provisions, should be the priority of future code development. The result would be better built homes and businesses, improving the resilience and continuity of the communities in which they exist. Residents would benefit from less potential for disruption of their lives, their local environment, and their economic well being.

Written by Donn C. Thompson, originally published in Concrete Home Builders, May 2014 

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