FEMA Study Shows Resilience Value of Building Codes but Understates Cost Impact

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A new study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) argues for adopting the latest editions of building codes without amendment to provisions relating to resilience — protection from earthquakes, floods and wind — but discounts the costs associated with building to newer codes. The Building Codes Save: A Nationwide Losses Avoided Study completes a multi-phase effort to quantify the benefits of adopting the International Building Code and International Residential Code in terms of economic losses avoided because of reduced damage to buildings and their contents from earthquakes, hurricanes and floods. The study estimates an annual savings of $1.6 billion in communities that have adopted the IBC and IRC since those codes were first published in 2000. Key findings of the study include:
  • An estimated $27 billion in losses because of earthquakes, floods and hurricanes have been avoided since 2000 in states that have adopted various editions of the IBC and IRC.
  • An estimated $132 billion to $172 billion in losses could be avoided through 2040 through continued use of the IBC and IRC in states at high risk of earthquakes, hurricanes and floods.
  • An estimated $600 billion in losses could be avoided by 2060 if all new building construction in the United States complied with the 2015 and 2018 IBC and IRC.
Although the study focuses on adoption of the 2015 and 2018 codes, the findings support field observations by FEMA, NIST and other structural engineers suggesting buildings constructed to any edition of the IBC and IRC suffer much less damage in earthquakes, floods and hurricanes than those constructed to legacy codes or no codes at all. An NAHB study of damage observations from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma quantified these long-standing observations. In fact, many of the most significant improvements in home resilience in the IRC — such as increased wall bracing for wind, roof uplift connection requirements, wind-borne debris protection, freeboard in coastal flood hazard areas, and stronger foundations in high-seismic regions — are associated with the 2003-2012 editions of the codes. Although the most recent editions (since 2015) of the IRC and IBC retain these natural hazard-resistant provisions, they contain other requirements that negatively impact housing affordability. Additionally, the natural hazard resilience provisions are not cost-effective in areas that are less prone to natural disasters. Adopting the latest model codes in these areas without significant amendments could lead to significantly higher costs to build without the monetary benefits of increased resilience touted in the FEMA study. State and local building code adoption jurisdictions should carefully weigh the resilience needs of homes in their area when deciding on which edition of the codes to adopt. There is no need to force up the price of homes in an area where natural disaster threats are minimal. For questions about the BCS study or code adoption in general, please contact Gary Ehrlich.

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