Thursday, June 28, 2012

Florida Building Codes: Safe or Sound?

Uncertainty about the ability of a structure to withstand the impact of a hurricane will inevitably give rise to uncertainty about the availability of affordable coverage because all uncertainties trickle down to calculating the insurance industry specific catastrophe risk.  In a hurricane prone state with an economy entwined with the real estate market and the seemingly omnipotent building interest, both the ability of a structure to withstand storm winds and the cost of construction (recouped in the sale price) is of concern.  Hence, building codes (adjusted every 5 years) are a subject of great debate that at times, conflates science and politics.

A large portion of the destruction left by Hurricane Andrew was found to be a result of a failed building code system.  In turn the Florida legislature created the Florida Building Commission charged with creating the Florida Building Code.  The Commission is a 25 member group, all appointed by the Governor, representing the many facets of the Florida building industry.  Aside from being a straightforward set of regulations, the Code prioritizes value preferences for building structures, 
The Florida Building Code shall provide for flexibility to be exercised in a manner that meets minimum requirements, is affordable, does not inhibit competition, and promotes innovation and new technology. The Florida Building Code shall establish minimum standards primarily for public health and lifesafety, and secondarily for protection of property as appropriate.
This prioritization of values prompted a recent article in the Miami Herald urging readers not to mistake a structure built to code as being one that is resistant to strong hurricanes.  Indeed, the Code is a negotiated compromise among conflicting interests and based on the law certain interests get priority.

Ricardo Alvarez expert in Mitigation and Vulnerability suggests that the building codes are only the minimum legal requirements and that these are not necessarily the "best or strongest."  To mitigate storm impacts and protect public vulnerability, "We should be building code-plus."    

Within the last year, the Code was adjusted, reflecting a recalculation of potential wind loads in the state and thereby reducing Code requirements in state except in Dade and Broward counties where requirements were increased.  Jack Glenn from the Florida Home Builders Association argued that new science, including risk modeling, was used to support decisions in favor of prioritized interests that felt that the previous Code required "overbuilding"
Pressures have been lowered but we have done it because the science says we should.
Richard Olson an expert on disaster politics at FIU appeals to the first priority of the Code and uses fear to suggest that the concentration of building along the coasts is a threat to human welfare 
 I stand up in public all the time and say we're going to get our asses kicked. They say, 'You're trying to scare me.' I say, 'Well, yeah.'

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