20 Years After Andrew, FBC Threatened
By on Thursday, December 13th 2012 @ 7:25 PM
By John Hellein, RFM Editor - Originally printed in RFM, September 2013
Twenty years ago, Hurricane Andrew barreled ashore in South Florida, dismantling lives and property. Forty-four people died in Florida during and after the storm and an astounding 117,000 homes were either badly damaged or destroyed. In the aftermath, it was clear that building regulations had failed. Two decades of reformation and revisions have followed and a robust and unified Florida Building Code has taken shape that gives building officials and contractors a common reference that balances economic factors with the need to increase the health, safety and welfare of Floridians. In the past few years, however, new legislation threatens to remove the Florida-specific character of the Florida Building Code and replace it with the more generic International Building Code (IBC), a national code written by outsiders unfamiliar with the special needs of the state. Already, that push has cost Florida unnecessary money and effort. If such a move were to reach its ultimate goal, Florida lawmakers, the Florida Building Commission and industry associations such as FRSA, whose members have volunteered so much time toward the improvement of the Florida Building Code, will have forfeited the ability for the people of Florida to determine for themselves what is best given our climate, vast coastal areas and storm risks.
Hurricane Andrew: Before and After
Following Andrew, it became clear that there were egregious shortcomings in the enforcement of building regulations and substandard roofing construction stood front and center. The Final Report of the Dade County Grand Jury (August 4, 1993) stated, "Of all the damages caused by Hurricane Andrew, the most prevalent was damage to roofs. Design flaws, approval of poorly performing substitute products and shoddy workmanship were all to blame" (page 6).
While the grand jury’s findings were damning, it also recognized that the improved code that resulted from the catastrophe included new roofing methods that are taken for granted today:
Officials… have begun a process whereby roofing is approved on a ‘system’ basis rather than on a basis of the individual components making up the roof. They feel that this approach will provide contractors and homeowners with approved ‘roofing systems’ wherein the entire system has been tested as a unit and determined to meet the requirements of the SFBC (page 7).
As often happens, human suffering served as a catalyst for reformation. South Florida led the way and in 1996 Governor Lawton Chiles moved the State toward a unified code that would take several years and a near civil war between the various players – developers, contractors, consumer advocates, insurance and governmental agencies – to accomplish. Nearly a full decade after Hurricane Andrew, the first edition of the Florida Building Code (2000) became law in 2001. It would be impossible to quantify the amount of work, much of it volunteer hours, that poured into the creation of the Building Code. In the decade that has followed, the work has been continued by the Commission and by industry leaders who have hands-on knowledge of the unique conditions we face in Florida compared to other areas of the United States.
Two Decades of Progress Threatened
Today, the 2010 version of the Florida Building Code is in effect. While the code is not perfect, it represents the best regulation for the State of Florida at this time. Revision to it in the future will make it better but those revisions should be made from the inside, by the people of Florida and not from an outside entity with its own set of interests. In the past couple of years, however, an attempt to introduce outside control over the code resulted in legislation that sets the International Building Code (IBC) developed by the International Code Council (an unregulated and private organization), as the base code instead of the Florida Building Code. This move is a dramatic departure from the process that has worked so well to this point. So far, the net effect of the legislation has been considerable extra time spent by FRSA members (as well as members of other associations) who face having to submit modification requests for the (ICC) base code to the Building Commission in order to restore all the code that is now stripped away each code cycle. Working with FRSA members for the 2013 code that is currently being developed, FRSA staff prepared and submitted 228 such requests this summer. While FRSA hopes that the modifications will be approved, there is no guarantee that this will happen. Certainly, people seeking to strengthen outside influence are working toward the denial of the modification requests, not on the merit, or lack of merit, of the requests themselves but in an effort to move away from the organic Florida Building Code to a national code.
It makes much greater sense to return, instead, to the Florida Building Code as the base code, eliminating the need to rebuild – every code cycle – the improvements that we have made over many years. It is important to ask how we, as Floridians, would benefit by surrendering control of the Code process to an outside entity. The Florida code that has been developed by Florida is considered the best in the country by many; why change the process that got us there? Fortunately, the Building Commission has worked to protect the code from attempts to strip much of it from the books, something for which we should all be grateful; but given current legislation, we appear to be headed in the wrong direction.
Working to improve Florida Building Code is enough of a challenge under the current system. Imagine what we would face if an outside code is imposed upon us by a remote authority. Local interpretation and decision making by building officials could become a thing of the past as they find themselves having to inflexibly enforce a code that has pre-empted local authority. Also, if you think that improving Florida code is a challenge now, imagine having to send a delegation from Florida (that represents only a fraction of the country) to gain an audience with an organization trying to impose a single code on all 50 states. The International Code Council does not have a positive record as an inclusive body.
Building codes that might work in much of the rest of the nation simply cannot take into account the unique conditions that we have been dealing with in the development of Florida building regulations over the past two decades and more. We could find ourselves regressing toward the pre-Andrew days that would mean something less for everyone involved, a true lose-lose prospect. The good news is that it lies within the power of the Florida Legislature and the Florida Building Commission to not voluntarily give up the ability to self-determine our building regulations and to undo the steps that have been taken in recent years to relinquish that control to outsider influences. Educate yourself about this issue, be prepared to support Florida’s right to speak for itself and stay tuned for future developments.