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Louisiana Passes New Statewide Building Code; Critics Say It May Burden Home Repairs

On November 29 Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco signed legislation for the state to adopt the International Building Code, a uniform code put out by the Virginia-based International Code Council, that will replace a patchwork of municipal controls that range from strict to none. The legislation, which was passed by the state Senate on November 22, not only requires that new construction adhere to the code, but that the it be applied to home repairs if costs are more than 50% of pre-storm valuation.

Once the bill is signed the 11 parishes hardest hit by this season’s storms will have 30 days to start applying the code. Those that don’t have enforcement officials will have 90 days. The code will take effect statewide on Jan. 1, 2007.

While many applaud the adoption of a statewide standard for new construction, the issues raised for home repairs are raising concerns. Industry experts say the adoption of the IBC will increase the spread between insurance pay-outs and repair costs so much that it may become too expensive for many homeowners to rebuild. In the New Orleans suburb of Kenner alone, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says in excess of 500 houses meet the 50% test. Phil Hoffman, president of Hoffman Custom Built Homes, LaPlace, La., says for the cost to bring those homes up to code, "they might just as well bring in the bulldozers and knock it all down."


Louisiana Parishes without existing codes will see the sharpest cost increase, says Ronnie Kyle, president of Louisiana Homebuilders Association. "In Baton Rouge, we’re probably looking at only a 2 to 3% increase in cost, but places like Cameron, that had no code, will have a 17 to 20% increase," he says. "Most of Orleans [Parish] was under at least a 1995 code and some the 2000 code, so they’re probably looking at an 8 to 12% increase."

To make things even more difficult for homeowners, Hoffman says the code is "basically a wind code" addressing roofs, wind anchors, bracing, siding and glazing, while most of the damage is from storm surge or flood. "Having to bring some of these damaged homes up to code will be a real task and insurance companies aren’t going to pay for that," he says. "They will only pay for the [flood] damaged areas of the house."

However, the insurance industry, building associations and contractors say code uniformity for new construction is needed to woo back insurers and secure federal funding. "It will motivate our insurance companies to come back," says John Marlow, assistant vice president for the Southwest Region of the American Insurance Association, a trade group. "This is not really about rates going down as much as it is about coverage being available. [Insurance] companies have been taking a really hard look about whether they want to do business in Louisiana anymore."

The code’s appeal is uniformity and insulation from ever-changing political influences, says Derrell Cohoon, executive director of Louisiana Associated General Contractors. "It will bring investors back and send a huge message that it’s not business as usual in Louisiana," Cohoon says.

Although increased costs will surely be a by-product of the new standards, "if you can’t buy insurance, it doesn’t do you any good to rebuild," says Kyle. "At some point, you’ve got to say the cost is what the cost is." He also says a provision for third-party inspectors may help speed permitting and construction.

Under the law, the governor will name a 19-member code council to review the code every three years. Legislators have already planned the first review for March, which should give time for kinks to surface, Hoffman says.

Elsewhere in the region, Texas’s June adoption of the IBC for municipalities goes into effect Jan 1. Mississippi building groups are lobbying a statewide adoption of the IBC, but the legislature is not in session until Jan. 3. In Alabama, AGC Executive Vice President Henry Hagood says there is "no concerted effort" to adopt a uniform statewide code now, but if Mississippi and Florida do, "Alabama would probably be looking at it too."

By Angelle Bergeron in New Orleans with Tom Sawyer,
Engineering News-Record