Navigating the Many Challenges with Building Codes
Just because a home or business is “built to code” doesn’t mean it is designed to withstand a major natural disaster, especially along America’s highly vulnerable Eastern and Southeastern coastlines. While the International Residential Code (IRC) and International Building Code (IBC) provide standard construction guidelines, the truth is that they are designed more for general health and safety than to protect property.
Most building codes can provide inhabitants with an increased likelihood of escape but don’t prevent the structure itself from complete or irreversible damage. This has a disastrous effect on the owner’s ability to recover economically, often resulting in further destruction of their life. Escaping the structure is important but so is returning to a home or business still intact enough to repair and enable the owner to begin rebuilding other critical areas of life.
The need for improved building codes is great but the problems that exist are many. Here are three problems concerning building codes that we chose to focus on.
Problem 1: Varying Code Requirements at Every Level
International Code Council (ICC) requirements are adopted in most U.S. communities. However, the ICC is far from a comprehensive code and structural requirements often vary from state to state:
- Alabama does not have a statewide code
- Mississippi only recently adopted one
- Florida has an extremely strict state code
To make things more scattered, codes also vary at the county and municipal levels.
Even though the state of Alabama does not have a statewide code, its coastal counties have adopted incredibly thorough codes provided by specialized organizations with missions to improve codes in high risk areas. For example, in Baldwin County, Alabama, an engineer is required to be involved during the design of a structure. However, right next door in Mississippi, there are no engineering requirements at all.
Problem 2: The Challenge of Code Enforcement
The wide variance of code from one community to the next creates a major challenge with enforcement. In many coastal areas, the codes adopted are relatively effective. However, enforcement is sparse, and in some cases, non-existent.
What good is a building code if builders aren’t adhering to it?
It’s not the builder’s fault alone. Not all regions even require continuing education of builders in order to maintain their license. Therefore inspection must be a critical part of the equation in order to prevent unintended missteps or negligent decisions during the construction process.
Some states do have an inspector who may or may not be ICC certified. To the same tune, that person may or may not be up to date on the latest educational requirements. In Alabama and Mississippi, code enforcement often happens within counties and municipalities, which means that homes within a few miles or even across the street from each other could have a notable discrepancy in code.
Problem 3: Updated Code Doesn’t Mean Adopted Code
Codes themselves are updated frequently–every three years. This is great, except for the fact that jurisdictions don’t always adopt them right away. This is understandable given the need to train and enforce the new code but the lag time greatly complicates things.
For example, codes were updated back in 2012 but after Hurricane Sandy hit that same year, many of these coastal states were rebuilding these communities with old code. What’s alarming is when another hurricanes hits, the community won’t withstand the impact as it could have with updated codes.