How Will Florida's New Building Codes Weather Hurricane Season?

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 1, 2017 5:08 pm

This year Florida lawmakers changed the way the state building codes are updated. There are concerns the new law could weaken the integrity of Florida homes, in order to cut construction costs. In the wake of Harvey, those concerns are taking on a new significance.

In 1992 Hurricane Andrew floored South Florida with 165 mile an hour winds that flattened houses and killed dozens of people. At the time, the state did not have a uniform building code to regulate the integrity of Floridians’ homes. Mike Huey represents the Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and he remembers that era.

“As you can probably tell by looking at the color of my hair, I was here when we didn’t have a uniform building code in Florida. We had multiple building codes throughout the state,” Huey said.

The destruction of the storm spurred lawmakers to reforms the codes. Regulations on missile-proof glass, fortified roofs, reinforced concrete pillars, even nails and adhesives followed. After 18 years of keeping a uniform code in place and up to date, Huey doesn’t want to see the trend reverse.

“We would like to urge you to not throw out the baby and the bathwater and the shower at the same time," he said.

But now some insurance experts and building officials are worried the state is walking back its stringent codes. Allen Douglas heads the Florida Engineering Society.

“Our members are worried that over time, the Florida code will move farther and farther away from the international code, and the effects that would have particularly in the areas of public safety and welfare,” Douglas said.

During the 2017 session, Florida lawmakers approved a sweeping bill reforming the construction industry. That policy is changing how the state’s building codes are updated, among many other things. Before this new law went into effect, Florida adopted the International Code whole cloth. That's written by the widely recognized International Code Council. The state would then remove language that's irrelevant to the state, like snow regulations. But now the state will simply review the international codes, but not adopt them outright.

“We’re flipping the process around and it allows us to take back a little bit more control of our final product,” said Republican Senator Tom Lee of Brandon. He's a homebuilder when he’s not in the state capitol. “It gives the commission the authority and flexibility to review rather than automatically adopt a code that was written out of state every three years.”

Senator Doug Broxson of Pensacola is worried that not using the international codes as a baseline could weaken Florida’s regulations.

“We have a phenomenal building in Florida, there’s no question about it. But the question is, would we have that code today without the...dependence on the international code that has pushed us to the point that we have things maybe within our code that are unnecessary, but certainly has protected the consume.” Broxson asked.

But St. Cloud Representative Mike La Rosa says the state’s construction industry is struggling to keep up with the regulations, and passing added costs onto the consumer.

“We have a real problem in our state, and the problem is the cost of construction. And the cost of construction continues to rise and continues to rise and continues to rise," he said. "And a lot of it is because of the codes we implement.”

But Craig Fugate says added costs and inconvenience don’t justify the changes. He’s the former administrator of FEMA, and Florida’s emergency management division. He criticized the Florida lawmakers' proposals at the 2017 National Hurricane Conference.

“Who is it inconvenient to? The person that’s buying the home for the next thirty years and will probably go through at least one if not more tropical systems? Or the developer and builder who would like to build it faster and cheaper and not have to continue to upgrade every three years?" he asked.

But when it comes to hurricane preparedness and home fortification, insurance expert Jack Nicholson says Floridians will pay now or pay later. He headed the state’s hurricane catastrophe fund for 21 years.

“Someday, somehow, you’re going to get…you’re going to get these events. And the money you spend now may be pennies on the dollar compared to what it might cost in the future. And certainly when you talk about loss of life? The lives that it could save would be well worth it as well,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson says the next big storm will be the true test of the changes to Florida’s building codes.

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