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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

Building Codes, Planning Key to Community Resilience

Men working at construction site with wood planks on ground and gray house dangling in air by crane

Following the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy, the owner of this home in Seaford, New York, is having it raised to help decrease the chances of future disaster damage.

Credit: Howard Greenblatt/FEMA

“Buildings built to the most modern building codes were the safest places to be during Hurricane Sandy.”

Having spent most of my life in code enforcement, I’ve known this to be fact and have seen the evidence with my own eyes. But hearing New York City Chief Resilience Officer Daniel Zarrilli say it on stage at the White House Conference on Resilient Building Codes this past May after the death and destruction wrought on the Northeast during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 brought back so many memories and reminded me why the International Code Council’s motto and mission is: “People Helping People Build a Safer World.”

Spending much of my career in hurricane-prone Florida, I’ve seen the real-life effects of natural and manmade disasters on communities. Working at the Planning, Zoning & Building Department in Palm Beach County, Florida, from 1983 to 2001, I had a front-row seat to the awesome power of Hurricane Andrew. It’s clear to me and the International Code Council (ICC) that, as our populations grow to cover more of the Earth’s surface and as our climate and weather pose powerful challenges we need scientifically sound, regularly updated, and properly implemented building codes.

Ensuring occupant health, safety, and welfare is the foundation of today’s building codes. Our current building codes reflect the latest understanding of hazard exposure and building performance. For instance, we include provisions in our construction codes that address disaster preparedness and recovery—from how and whether to build in flood plains to constructing new buildings and modifying existing buildings so that they can better withstand natural and manmade disasters.

Adaptability and lengthening the lifecycle of buildings are important considerations as well. Our codes enable changes to the systems inside the building and the structure itself after it’s been occupied, including repair, alteration, change of occupancy, addition to, and relocation of existing buildings. As communities change, so do the buildings they use. Codes that anticipate and allow for existing buildings to be adapted for new uses preserve a sense of continuity while also reducing blight from outdated, unused, or disaster-damaged buildings.

NIST's Community Resilience Planning for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems lays out a six-step process to help communities improve their resilience by setting priorities and allocating resources to manage risks for their prevailing hazards. It's a way to turn resilience concepts into action.

Creating resilient communities also requires diligent planning and innovative thinking, like that recommended in the NIST Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems. As more communities begin incorporating the ideas outlined in the NIST guide, they will be able to take advantage of more robust building codes. This kind of symbiosis between community resilience planning and standards and codes is essential if we are to prepare our communities for the challenges that nature throws at us and to ensure that we can maintain the vital social and economic functions of our community during and after a destructive event and get back to business and normalcy as quickly and completely as possible.

The effective implementation of up-to-date codes increases the use and efficacy of new building technologies and offers a cost-effective path toward community stability before, during, and after times of disaster.

Code development is one of a number of measures in place to create resilient communities, and it’s one that I personally have witnessed expand the concept of resilience into the regulatory landscape. ICC uses its open, transparent, and inclusive code development process to explore, study, debate, and incorporate the latest in resilient construction. We capitalize on the expertise of every sector of society including government, private industry, academia, and the general public.

In addition to regular adoption of updated codes, proper implementation of those codes means that the teams of local code inspectors, fire officials, plan reviewers, and other code professionals are provided with the tools, resources, and education needed to keep pace with the rate of technological improvement in building construction. It’s important to prioritize the support of building and fire code enforcement departments.

After all, building codes are an essential way for us to prepare ourselves for hazardous events. Lack of strong enforcement undermines that effort. Just as the failure of a single column can bring down an entire building, the failure of a structure vital to the operation of a community, be it a hospital or water treatment plant, can have a profound effect on how well a community weathers a storm and how quickly it can get back to normal.

The foundation of community resilience is proper planning. Up-to-date building codes that reflect the most recent knowledge and experience are an important part of that strategy. We are committed to improving the resilience of our nation. Without cooperation and input from NIST and others, our job would be exponentially more difficult.

About the author

Dominic Sims

Dominic Sims has served as the Chief Operating Officer of the International Code Council since October 2006. Sims was CEO of the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI), an International Code Council legacy organization, and helped lead the consolidation of the three model code organizations. He holds several professional certifications with the Code Council and the states of Florida and Ohio. Prior to joining the Code Council and SBCCI, Sims was Executive Director of the Palm Beach County, Florida, Planning, Zoning and Building Department. He has served on numerous committees, including as Vice Chairman of the Florida Governor’s Building Code Study Commission and was Vice Mayor of Jupiter, Florida.

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I think the second to last paragraph is directly where the evolution of the code needs to go. It's not about life safety alone anymore. In our urbanized regions we need to invest in improved operability/functionality.

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