New building code brings cost, confusion
Inadequacies exposed by Hurricane Andrew forced the new regulations. Despite higher construction costs, it is unclear whether homes will be safer.
By JUDY STARK, Times Homes Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 19, 2002
[Times photo: Ricardo Ferro 1992]
Residents sort through the rubble of their Homestead homes after Hurricane Andrew rampaged through South Florida.
Hurricane Andrew revealed shoddy construction and inadequate building inspection that led to new statewide requirements to produce more hurricane-worthy homes.
Ten years later, one thing is clear: If you are buying a newly constructed home, it will cost you thousands of dollars more because of Andrew-prompted building code changes.
What isn't clear is whether those changes will make homes any safer. The building industry persuaded the Legislature to delay implementing the new code from July 2001 to March, then pulled thousands of permits under the old codes at the end of February.
The new code is supposed to eliminate a patchwork of building regulations across the state. But each community can interpret it differently. Confusion abounds.
"We used to have 467 building codes," said Jack Glenn of the Florida Home Builders Association: "Now we have one code with 467 interpretations."
After Andrew, the state began enforcing rules that had been on the books since 1986 but had been overlooked. Sturdier foundations. Hurricane straps instead of clips. More reinforcing bars. Concrete to hold masonry blocks in place. Nails instead of staples in roofs.
Glenn said his phone has been busy with builders seeking clarification.
"But two of every five calls about 'something new' in the code are really about something that's been in the code for 10 years, and one of every five is about something that's been in there for 15 years," he said.
"There's been so much press, the code is so much more available, it's a very well-read document, and a lot of people are now enforcing sections of the code that they've never enforced before like it was new."
The new code, through stricter requirements for siding and roof shingles, is supposed to reduce the amount of flying debris and make it less likely that a piece of your neighbor's roof will smash through your window.
It also covers things that have nothing to do with hurricanes: plumbing, electrical, mechanical, termite and energy-efficiency.
The impact of the new code depends on where you are.
"The changes haven't been that dramatic for us," said Bob Fertig, president of Lennar's U.S. Home division in North Florida. Much of its work is outside the wind-borne debris zone, where impact-resistant windows or shutters are required.
His homes now include better support of gable ends, which Hurricane Andrew showed were vulnerable to high winds. He estimated that engineering change alone added up to $1,500 to the cost of his homes.
The biggest costs under the new code have been upgraded air conditioning and improved window installation and fastening, which Fertig said added $1,700 to construction costs. He said the new code adds up to four days to the time it takes to build a house.
New electrical requirements added $200 to the cost of each home and engineering fees another $500 to $1,000, said James Rosenbluth of Shelter South in Pinellas.
The general cost of doing business -- keeping the lights on and staff paid -- plus the new construction requirements, add $4,000 to $6,000 to the three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,500-square-foot home Rosenbluth builds, an increase of 4 to 5 percent.
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Last month, 10,000 builders, developers, architects and planners from 12 states gathered in Orlando for the Southeast Building Conference. The place was awash with impact-resistant windows and hurricane shutters, required under the new code in parts of Florida.
The conference was spiced with complaints about the detailed documentation that government and insurance companies now demand from builders.
Vendors and contractors swapped horror stories: The plans examiner who wanted a homeowner to add an escape window to her safe room (a window is the last thing a safe room needs). The building inspector who wanted a product approval code laser-engraved on every shutter blade (an idea scratched with one call to the inspector's boss.)
"We have a problem with inspectors interpreting the code in their own way. We're jumping through hoops for them," said Rhonda Schotz, a window designer for Kolbe & Kolbe in Wausau, Wis., who was exhibiting products at the conference.
Most hurricane damage is caused when wind blows out windows, howls through the home and exerts enough pressure to blow off the roof. The house can collapse.
The most-discussed provisions in the code apply to coastal counties, where builders have a choice: impact-resistant windows, shutters or engineering that allows a house to withstand the internal pressure.
Most tract-home builders are choosing better engineering, said Paul D. Kidwell, a structural engineer with Silcox, Kidwell & Associates in Tampa.
That means additional reinforcing bars for vertical strengthening, some strengthening of the roof, windows that will withstand wind pressures -- though not flying debris -- and better window fasteners.
"You're most likely not going to have a breach, but if it does occur, the house is designed to withstand pressures, and your damages will be limited," Kidwell said.
Some builders changed their methods soon after Andrew.
"Basically, we built to these codes before," said Daniel Ashline, a remodeling contractor and president of the Remodelors Council at the Contractors & Builders Association of Pinellas. "We've been building pretty tight structures ever since Andrew, really. What we were doing before covers what we're doing now."
Building codes are updated every three years, so the new code is "a tweak above what would have been normal," Glenn said. "It looks like a major change," he added, but "it is nothing more than building departments are used to dealing with."
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The new code took effect March 1. At the end of February, builders pulled thousands of permits under the old codes. With the backlog of permit applications, many builders are only now getting their first permits under the more stringent code.
That's why a decade after Andrew, it's difficult to judge if new houses will be stronger and safer.
The insurance industry thinks so.
If the new codes had been in place in 1992, Andrew would have caused $10-billion less damage, about one-third less than the total, according to a study to be released this week by the industry's Institute for Business and Home Safety.
The industry has until February to announce any premium changes for homes built under the new code.
Builders say they don't have to wait: They know homes built under the new code are safer.
Rosenbluth of Shelter South said that from the outside, older homes "look just as good as the day they were built, but there is no protection whatsoever. Conventionally framed houses, the rafters are just toenailed together. . . . Given all the straps and clips and reinforcement we do now, it's completely different. I feel what we're doing now is certainly superior."
Inspections also have changed.
"There's more detailed plan review, and more specific inspections. Before, they were very general," said Mo Madani, planning manager in the state Department of Community Affairs.
"The things that really have improved are enforcement and implementation of the code. You could write the strongest code in the country and if you don't inspect properly, it wouldn't matter."