Building Codes: The Foundation for a Resilient Nation

The devastation brought by natural disasters is all too prominent in today’s media. Deaths, injuries and property loss demonstrate the fragility of communities in the face of these events. Increased community resilience provides a mechanism to lessen the impact of these events and assure that communities can continue to thrive.  

The Alliance for National & Community Resilience (ANCR), a subsidiary of the International Code Council (ICC), identified 19 areas that represent the essential functions communities provide. See Figure 1. These functions become even more important in the face of hazards. Additionally, communities operate as a complex, interconnected systems of systems. Individual systems rarely operate in isolation from one another. 

The Role of Buildings and Codes in Community Resilience 

A community’s building stock underpins many of these functional areas. Police and fire stations support emergency response, hospitals support public health, schools support education, factories and office buildings support businesses and the economy, and housing supports employees and citizens.  

The ability for buildings to contribute to community resilience depends on the standards they are built to. As presented in the recent ICC and ANCR publication, Building Community Resilience through Modern Model Building Codes, well-constructed buildings, designed to the latest building codes, are a significant factor in avoiding and reducing potential losses when disaster strikes.1 Communities cannot be resilient without resilient buildings. 

Multiple studies have demonstrated this concept. The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) recently found that the use of the 2018 International Codes (or I-Codes) when compared to criteria in place in 1990 provides a benefit of $11 for every dollar spent.2 Approximately $500 million in annualized losses could be avoided in eight southeastern states due to the adoption of modern building codes.3 Effective and well-enforced building codes in Missouri reduced hail damage to homes by 10 to 20 percent on average.4 When Hurricane Charley hit Florida in 2004, the adoption and enforcement of the Florida Building Code resulted in actual losses being reduced by as much as 72 percent as compared with Hurricane Andrew in 1992.5 

As new research following disaster events emerges or best practices evolve to enhance building safety, model building codes incorporate these lessons learned. Table 1 provides a few examples of resiliency-related updates incorporated into the I-Codes. Achieving these benefits requires the timely adoption and effective administration of building codes.  

Table 1: Sampling of Contemporary Resilience-Related Changes to the International Codes 

Wind map and design enhancements Tables detailing wind structural design requirements by region were updated to align with the latest wind design standards and to include special wind regions of mountainous terrain and gorges. 
Seismic map updates Seismic maps and corresponding design criteria have been updated to better capture seismic risk. 
Storm shelters Storm shelters are required to be constructed in critical emergency operations facilities and in educational facilities in high-risk tornado areas. 
Foundation strengthening Minimum requirements for building foundations (i.e., footings) were made to be more responsive to the structural design characteristics of the buildings they support. 
Enhanced anchorage requirements for concrete and masonry walls These requirements increase resiliency of existing buildings where large alterations are undertaken. 
Enhanced bracing requirements for unreinforced masonry walls above the roofline (parapets) These requirements increase resiliency of existing buildings where large alterations are undertaken 
Flood mitigation Minimum building/structure elevations have been increased to better protect residential buildings in areas with flood risk. 

Codes Contribute to National Policy Goals 

The U.S. Congress recently recognized the importance of building codes in stemming the rising costs of disaster recovery. The Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) was signed into law on October 5, 2018. The Act provides jurisdictions with additional incentives to adopt and enforce the latest I-Codes. In short, the DRRA: 

  • Provides additional resources for the implementation of building codes post-disaster; 
  • Roughly quadruples funding for competitive pre-disaster mitigation (PDM) grants for state, local, tribal, and territorial governments; 
  • Allows PDM funding to be used for adoption and enforcement of I-Codes; 
  • Increases jurisdictions’ chances of receiving PDM awards based on their adoption and enforcement of the latest edition of the I-Codes; and, 
  • Codifies FEMA’s requirement that federally assisted facility repair and rebuilding efforts post-disaster be done to the latest building codes. 

Resilience and Material Selection 

The resilience of individual buildings depends on the risks it faces and the strategies used to address those risks. Building design and the materials used influence a building’s ability to withstand a hazard event. While resilience is often thought of in the context of acute disasters like hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and wildfires, it is also important to consider more acute events like changes in average temperature or the frequency of freeze-thaw cycles. Understanding the characteristics of building materials and how they function in the face of various hazards is an essential skill for designers. Contractors must have the education and training to support the proper installation of materials if the desired protections are to be realized.  

Material specific research and the development of standards and other guidance based on that research will be essential to advancing the cost-effective implementation of resilience measures in the building stock. Building codes could be updated as this new knowledge and criteria becomes available.   

Benchmarking Community Resilience 

Most communities do not have the tools or resources to effectively evaluate their resilience across 19 functional areas and thus their overall resilience. ANCR is working to provide the information that communities need to understand and benchmark their current level of resiliency, identify and understand options available to fill gaps and increase resiliency, and to understand the future benefits to be gained by investing in advance of the next hazard event.  

Through the development of Community Resilience Benchmarks (CRBMs) for the 19 key community functions, ANCR will provide communities with a coordinated, comprehensive tool to help facilitate decision making. Businesses and people can also utilize the tool to decide where to invest and where to live. These benchmarks are being developed by a team of subject matter experts (SMEs) in each of the functional areas. Where practical, the benchmarks utilize existing standards and guidance to support broad applicability and ease of use. 

Consistent with the crucial role buildings play in community resilience, ANCR’s first benchmark focused on buildings. The Buildings Benchmark was introduced in January to allow solicitation from potential users.6 Additional benchmarks will be developed over the next few months. 

Conclusion 

As recognized by Benjamin Franklin, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the context of how communities react in the face of hazards, this is particularly true. Significant social and economic gains can be made by investing in hazard mitigation to reduce the human and financial losses associated with disasters. Making important, ongoing investments on sunny days reduces the deaths, injuries and property loss on dark days. Building codes are one of the most cost-effective strategies communities can deploy in advancing their resilience. 

Words & Photos: Ryan Cocker