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Shedding light on new window rules

[Times file photo]
Impact-resistant glass, installed in this St. Petersburg home last year, is expensive because production takes longer.

New building codes require that remodelers use expensive impact-resistant windows, too costly for some homeowners. What if the windows outlast the house?

By JUDY STARK, Times Homes Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 8, 2002

Replacement window installers in the Tampa Bay area say the new requirements for hurricane-worthy windows are killing them.

The codes, they say, were written for new construction and are unrealistic or impossible to comply with in remodeling. The cost of impact-resistant windows -- three to four times that of a standard window -- exceeds the budget of some homeowners in modest older homes, and the contractors fear that neighborhoods will decline because homeowners can't afford to remodel. Homeowners who do install them end up, contractors say, with windows that are stronger than the rest of their homes. Where, they ask, is the sense in that?

"We're shocked" by the implications of the new codes for the retrofitting industry, said Kathryn Zimring, owner of Bay City Window in St. Petersburg, voicing a complaint of many contractors. "We cannot believe what the state of Florida has done."

Window contractors also complain that, although the new code is called the uniform building code, it is being interpreted differently in different cities and counties. "Not one of the municipalities in Pinellas will ever ask for the same thing," said Rick Davis, owner of Lloyd's Aluminum in Seminole, who has been in business for 25 years.

The Department of Community Affairs acknowledges the confusion, concedes that the new rules are "a code in progress" and says there are plans to develop a "rehab code" that would address the unique needs of remodelers.

"I haven't sold a window since March 1," when the new codes went into effect, said Jim O'Keefe of Tri-County Aluminum in Pasco County.

"I'm breaking people's hearts three or four times a day," he said, in older subdivisions in West Pasco such as Beacon Woods, Leisure Beach, Veterans Village and Regency Park, when he tells homeowners that windows for which they expected to pay $3,000 or $4,000 will cost them $15,000 to $20,000. Impact-resistant glass is more expensive than regular glass because its production process takes longer, industry officials say.

Under the new codes that went into effect March 1, homeowners who remodel or buy new construction who live in high-wind zones (Pinellas, West Pasco and a tiny sliver of Hillsborough near the Manatee line) must use impact-resistant glass or must cover their windows with protective panels or shutters. (A third alternative is to design a building to resist wind pressures if windows and doors are broken during a storm, but this is not a realistic alternative for the homeowner who simply wants to replace the leaky, ugly, inefficient windows in the living room.)

Window retailers say they have been cursed at, ridiculed and thrown out by homeowners "whose chins hit the table when they find out what it costs," O'Keefe said.

If homeowners can't afford to improve their homes, O'Keefe and others fear, older neighborhoods may deteriorate. That, they say, lowers property values, decreases the likelihood of resale, lowers the state's sales tax revenue and prevents owners from increasing their homes' energy efficiency -- which is, incidentally, another goal of the new codes.

"I used to do $150,000, $175,000 a month" in window business, said Stan Ubele of Pasco Window and Door. "Last month I don't think we did $80,000," and a lot of that was service.

Ubele said he had to go to the county permitting department four times to sort out the documentation required to replace two windows, "and it's still not right."

Davis said he typically pays monthly state sales tax of $8,000 to $10,000. This month he estimates he'll pay only $2,000 to $3,000.

The differing interpretations of the new code from one jurisdiction to another are a particular sore spot with contractors as permit offices struggle to understand and apply the new codes. St. Petersburg, for example, requires no permits for replacement windows in one- and two-family houses, but Pinellas County does. That's confusing for contractors who work in many jurisdictions.

"Every city wants different things," said Zimring, of Bay City Window. "There's nothing uniform. It's really difficult. Builders call us all the time: "I need the engineering' " on windows to prove to permit offices that the windows are in compliance.

Davis said it's impossible to install replacement windows to meet the new requirements, which say the window frame must be anchored into the substructure. In new construction that would mean into concrete-block cells filled with poured concrete. But that's not how older homes were built, he said. "The only way to do what they want you to do is practically rebuild the house," he said.

If homeowners decide to go with shutters or plywood rather than impact-resistant glass, Davis pointed out, those shutters are required only on the new windows, leaving all the old windows exposed. Other window retailers pointed out that those older homes are not reinforced with hurricane straps or reinforced garage doors. So what's the point, they ask, of having to make a few windows tougher when the rest of the house is not?

"This is not much fun for any of us," said Rod Fischer, head of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. The new codes "do not give you clear directions on how to build or how to enforce." Members of the Florida Building Commission, he said, "haven't done their job."

"A lot of decisions are being made because of "CYA,' " he said. "In fairness to building officials, they would like to be more lenient, but they don't want to take on the liability." The new code, he said, "was supposed to give clear directions. Instead, it has created the opportunity for widespread interpretation."

The requirement for impact-resistant windows, Fischer said, means "that you have to put in windows that are stronger than the walls that support them. If there's a storm, stand behind the window!"

Tom Tafelski, a Pinellas remodeler, aluminum contractor and board member of the PCCLB, complained that it's hard to find products and materials that meet the new code.

"There is no double-hung wood window that meets the code," he said. "But the St. Petersburg review board requires you to match a new window to the old. Neighborhood design review requires that too. I don't know what the answer is."

As for doors, Tafelski said he knows of no solid-wood entry doors that have been certified to meet the code. "How do you match a two-panel wooden door on the front of older homes and meet the requirements of a design review board when no doors are certified" to meet code requirements? "It's a big problem," he said. He also said he knows of no doors with decorative or stained glass that meet certification requirements.

At the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which staffs the building commission and oversees the code, "I don't blame them for being confused," said planning manager Mo Madani, who acknowledged he has heard some of the window contractors' complaints before. "It's a code in progress, and we still have to improve on it and consider all situations."

He said the building commission "has started putting together a rehab code" that will address the concerns of remodeling contractors. Meanwhile, he urged contractors to submit proposed code changes to the commission during a "glitch period" that ends Friday. Nonetheless, he said, "there are certain things we can't deviate from," and "we have to start somewhere. The requirement is in the code. We understand this is a confusing issue."

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