November 18, 2005
While still picking through the debris
from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Gulf Coast states have begun
reexamining their building codes. The disasters have strengthened
calls for areas without codes to adopt them, and for consistent
codes within states.
"Every state should have a statewide
minimum code," says James Lee Witt, CEO of the International
Code Council (ICC) and former FEMA director. "It's critical.
It's a form of mitigation."
The widespread destruction seen from
the recent disasters, and predictions of more extreme weather
are expected to accelerate the adoption of the International
Building Code (IBC), the International Residential Code (IRC,
which the ICC administers) and other safety measures. The
IBC and IRC contain provisions for hurricanes, including wind-resistant
roofs and doors, and high-impact glass on upper floors.
It's pretty dramatic to see areas
where houses built to code survived, and houses right next
to them not built to code were destroyed," says David
Hardy, a partner at Guild Hardy Architects in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The Lousiana legislature in November
took up the issue of statewide adoption of the IBC and IRC
as minimum building codes. To date, only a handful of parishes
have adopted versions of the codes, although the state now
implements the IBC for state-funded projects. Under the proposed
legislation, Louisiana officials would work with local authorities
to adapt the codes to local conditions according to Witt.
A number of towns along the Mississippi
coast have already adopted the international codes, while
cities like Biloxi and Gulfport are in the process of doing
so. Mississippi leaves code decisions to municipalities, although
the state is expected to encourage the adoption of appropriate
Either way, it will be a while before
the lessons of this hurricane season work their way into building
codes, according to David Bonneville, chair of the National
Council of Structural Engineers Associations code advisory
council. "The process of making code changes generally
requires years, not months," he says. And no code can
guarantee a that a build will survive a hurricane, adds New
Orleans architect and planner John Williams. Between bunkers
and flimsy wood houses, "somewhere in there, there's
a balance," he says.
Meanwhile, FEMA has issued revised flood
elevation advisories to coastal areas in the region. While
official maps are not expected for at least two years (FEMA's
expedited schedule), the new figures are intended to guide
designers and developers. Coastal areas with levels of 11
feet to 17 feet now have a revised level of 18 feet, according
to Bill Mitchell, an engineer with Brown & Mitchell, in
The adjusted levels have sparked questions
about the suitability of FEMA's risk assessment method. FEMA's
guidelines could make some areas off-limits or prohibitively
expensive to build, pricing some people out of their current
homes, according to critics. . "I think you'll see more
structures raised on concrete and steel-type pilings,"
Mitchell says. "The area along the bays and coastline
will be one of escalators and elevators." Steve Mouzon,
a Florida architect who participated in Mississippi's reconstruction
charrette, warns that if compromised main street buildings
have to be rebuilt on stilts, it creates access problems
and ruins the shops around it, so you've have totally destroyed
the downtown and its retail tax base."
Some designers have suggested modifying
the flood risk calculation to account for building type, reasoning
that masonry and reinforced concrete buildings can withstand
more than wooden structures. But such an approach would still
leave the buildings' contents at risk, former FEMA director
While there has been little new construction
in the hardest-hit coastal areas, clients are interested in
raised permanent structures, according to designers. In the
meantime, the high demand for temporary, modular structures
raises the issue of code compliance for those buildings, as