Mandatory Code Language Is Needed to Ensure Existing Buildings Are Operational After a Disaster

Today’s minimum requirements of current building codes only emphasize life safety. As long as occupants can be evacuated during a fire, hurricane or other major event, the intent of the code has been achieved. Get the people out and consider how to rebuild and repopulate later. This problem was a common theme at the 2012 National Council for Science and the Environment Conference: Environment and Security. During the conference, it was strongly suggested a cultural change is needed: The goal should not only be getting people out, but also getting them back in “tomorrow.”

Many communities and states already have requirements for enhanced resilience for critical and essential facilities; however, these communities are realizing focusing only on critical facilities is insufficient. Hospitals, police stations, fire services and other vital services require support and employees. When neighborhood services are not restored, longer-term operation becomes challenging. It was quite evident this is a problem following Hurricane Katrina when doctors, nurses, police, utility workers and others had no homes to live in during cleanup and repair of New Orleans.

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association inventoried buildings within San Francisco this year and identified the timeframe at which buildings in its jurisdiction need to be functional. Critical and essential facilities are identified by the association as needing to be operational immediately or within 24 to 48 hours after an event. Many of the existing buildings used to provide critical services, which were rated based on field inspections of representative samples of buildings, were already rated as being operational within 24 hours. However, it was determined it would take more than a year for most neighborhood residences and businesses to become functional—if they could be salvaged at all.

Not every jurisdiction has the resources to inventory all its buildings, evaluate how they will perform in a disaster and develop a comprehensive plan to improve the resiliency of their buildings. Alternatively, the Portland Cement Association, Skokie, Ill., has developed a set of criteria in mandatory language that may be used to enhance the resilience of existing buildings or at least be applicable to new construction in disaster-prone areas or where communities are truly concerned about sustainability. These criteria, “High Performance Building Requirements for Sustainability, Version 2.0,” were developed jointly with the Tampa, Fla.-based Institute
for Business and Home Safety, a national association representing the insurance and re-insurance industry. The criteria are a set of non-product-specific performance requirements intended as modifications to the International Building Code. They include structural, fire-protection, interior and exterior components.

Ideally, jurisdictions would adopt “High Performance Building Requirements for Sustainability, Version 2.0,” ensuring all new buildings would be more resilient and, after disasters, existing buildings that are salvageable but damaged to the extent that the code applies would need to be improved to meet the higher code. Consequently, the construction industry would no longer be replacing buildings or portions of buildings with the same type of construction that was destroyed in the event.

Recognizing the condition of the existing building stock and the need to upgrade is a huge step in the correct direction. However, PCA believes this is not sufficient if changes are not made for new and existing buildings through code language. Constructing new buildings to a higher degree of resilience will gradually result in better communities, one new building at a time. In addition, mandatory requirements will ensure existing buildings that are salvageable after disasters will be improved to face future events.

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Read more information about the Skokie, Ill.-based Portland Cement Association’s “High Performance Building Requirements for Sustainability, Version 2.0.”

About the Author

Stephen S. Szoke, P.E., FACI
Stephen S. Szoke, P.E., FACI, is director of Codes and Standards for the Portland Cement Association, Skokie, Ill. He currently serves on committees related to enhanced building resilience, including the American Society of Civil Engineers Structural Engineering Institute Board of Governors and the National Institute of Building Sciences Building Seismic Safety Council Board of Directors and Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council.

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