Building Codes: Everyday Tools for Disaster Preparedness and Relief

In the days following the powerful assault of Hurricane Michael on the Florida Panhandle, images of widespread devastation headlined television news coverage and print media. Not as prone to hurricane activity as the rest of Florida, the area hit by the almost Category 5 storm had many older homes built prior to the enactment of stricter building codes put into place after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. As a result, many structures built to less stringent requirements were unprepared to weather the onslaught of wind, rain, and debris tossed by Michael’s sustained 155-mph winds.

Nothing can guarantee a structure’s integrity when faced with such brutal conditions. However, contrast the post-storm condition of those older structures with that of newer buildings and the benefits of more rigorous regulations are clear. The aerial images of the impacted communities illustrate the value of implementing building codes that can contribute to greater resiliency both for the structures themselves and for the safety and comfort of the people and property contained within them during and after a storm makes landfall.

Media coverage of the storm’s aftermath included profiles of some of the structures that fared better than their neighbors. The New York Timesran a profile entitled, “Among the Ruins of Mexico Beach Stands One House, Built ‘for the Big One’” and the Washington Post published an article entitled, “Houses intact after Hurricane Michael were often saved by low-cost reinforcements.” 

When interviewed on CNN, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said, “… there’s a lesson here about building codes. The key to resiliency in this country is where our local officials and state officials are going to have to do something proactively to start passing building codes to high standards.” 

As is often the case in the wake of a disaster, there is a profusion of interest in exploring strategies to protect communities and properties from devastation. These articles and interview reveal that building structures with conscious attention to resiliency can offer markedly improved performance in extreme weather. As an added bonus, many of the products and processes that deliver this resiliency can also contribute to decreased energy usage and operational costs for buildings regardless of the weather they’re subjected to.

Even before this summer’s series of destructive storms, elected officials and government agencies were working to implement wide-ranging strategies to protect our communities. Updating state and local building codes, which exist to safeguard life and protect private and public interests through regulating the design, construction practices, construction material quality, location, occupancy usage, and maintenance of buildings and structures, is one of the most effective ways to increase the safety and resiliency of our built environment.

Congressional Action

On two occasions this year, Congress enacted reforms for disaster preparedness that raise the profile and importance of building codes in planning for and recovering from disasters. The nation’s disaster relief law — the StaffordAct— was first reformed as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act and later reformed with permanent fixes under the FAA Reauthorization bill passed in October 2018. 

Under these amendments, building code adoption and enforcement are added as eligible activities and criteria used in grant programs aimed at reducing the impact of future disasters. In other words, states that act to adopt modern building codes and standards will be eligible for additional federal assistance in the event disaster strikes. Moreover, the reforms allow damaged buildings to be rebuilt with federal support to better withstand future events, rather than merely restored to their pre-disaster condition. 

While these changes do not specifically address energy codes, adopting and updating building codes will also lead to improvements in energy performance. Energy efficiency is a key part of a building’s — and a community’s — ability to withstand and quickly recover after a disaster. For example, a well-insulated building can maintain a comfortable temperature when power is lost or intermittent. Building energy codes will also encourage the construction of more robust building envelope systems that can help avoid the crippling effects of moisture intrusion that are common in severe weather events.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the first nine months of 2018 (through October 9) resulted in 11 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each. Moody’s Analyticsestimates that losses resulting from Hurricane Michael will cost between $15 and $21 billion. Damage to homes and businesses are a major contributor to the total financial impact of a disaster. 

Buildings constructed to meet or exceed modern building codes can therefore play an important role in reducing the overall economic impact of natural disasters. According to the “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report”published by the National Institute of Building Sciences, the model building codes developed by the International Code Council can save the nation $4 for every $1 spent. In addition, designing new buildings to exceed the 2015 International Building Code(IBC) and International Residential Code(IRC) would result in 87,000 new, long-term jobs and an approximate 1 percent increase in utilization of domestically produced construction material.

While people, pets and some belongings can be evacuated to safety with enough warning and resources, buildings can’t be moved to higher ground or be rebuilt overnight in anticipation of an oncoming storm. Indeed, buildings are often the only things separating people from the brutal forces of natural disasters. The protection they offer is often determined by the quality of the construction materials and the installation methods used, which are themselves often regulated by the safety standards in place at the time of original construction or major renovation. 

The recognition by Congress that modern building codes deliver an answer to disaster preparedness is a positive for homeowners and businesses across the country. States now have added incentive to prepare for tomorrow by enacting and enforcing better building codes today. And more exacting building codes will create momentum to raise the bar for all of the codes that work together to create stronger and more resilient buildings that will contribute to better outcomes in extreme weather and reduced energy consumption in any weather. 

About the author: Justin Koscher is president of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association (PIMA). For more information, visit www.polyiso.org.

The Federal Government Is Making Energy-Efficient Roofing Attractive

Small businesses are now able to deduct the full cost of replacing a roof on an existing non-residential building in the year the project was completed instead of depreciating that cost over a 39-year period, as was previously required. Photo: SOPREMA

It is fair to say that Washington, D.C., is far from dull. From the recent Tax Cut and Jobs Act to rolling debates on passing a federal budget, there is a great deal going on at the federal level that impacts the building and roofing industries. In particular, new reforms allow qualifying building owners to expense, or deduct, up to $1 million for the cost of certain building improvements in the year the work is performed, including adding insulation during roof replacement projects to meet or go beyond modern building energy code requirements. The impact can be significant for capital improvement projects. For example, a building owner that expenses the cost of a full roof replacement can reduce the net cost of the entire project by 25 percent to 30 percent.

Commercial Building Roof Replacements

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Trump on December 22, 2017, includes a provision that reduces the overall cost associated with re-roofing and significantly improves the cost-effectiveness of commercial roof replacements that comply with building energy codes. The vast majority of state and local governments require minimum insulation levels for both new roofs and roof replacements (but not for roof repairs or recovers). These requirements apply to existing buildings because the most economical time to improve a roof’s thermal performance is when the roof membrane is pulled off and replaced. Also, roof replacements are one of the best opportunities for improving energy efficiency in existing buildings, which account for 40 percent of U.S. energy use.

Starting in 2018, the new federal tax law expands the definition of “qualified real property” under the small business expensing provisions of Internal Revenue Code section 179 to include improvements to existing nonresidential roofs. Section 179 allows businesses to fully expense (deduct) up to $1 million (indexed for inflation after 2018) in one year for qualified business expenses, such as equipment purchases and specific building improvements. With this change, small businesses are now able to deduct — in the year completed — the full cost of replacing a roof on an existing non-residential building instead of depreciating that cost over a 39-year period, as was required under prior law. As a mechanism intended to limit the deduction to small businesses, the benefit is phased out for businesses that spend more than $2.5 million (also indexed for inflation) on qualified equipment and real property. This change takes effect in 2018 and, unlike some provisions of the new law, is permanent.

A typical scenario under which a commercial building roof replacement is required to comply with a building energy code is one where an older building with a low-slope roof has R-11 or R-12 insulation in the roof prior to the roof replacement. The R-12 assumption is based on a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study that evaluated the level of existing insulation in commercial building roofs. For most of the country, current building energy codes require roof replacements to have a minimum level of R-25 or R-30, depending on the climate zone.

The average simple payback period for meeting the energy code is 11.6 years, according to a comprehensive energy modeling study completed in 2009 (“Energy and Environmental Impact Reduction Opportunities for Existing Buildings with Low-Slope Roofs,” produced by Covestro).

The payback period is the amount of time it takes for the energy savings to equal the cost of installing the additional insulation. By allowing a building owner to deduct the full cost of the roof replacement, including the cost for installing additional insulation, the net cost of the entire project is reduced by 25 percent to 30 percent, depending on a tax payer’s tax rate. (The Tax Cuts & Jobs Act reduced the corporate tax rate to 21 percent, but the pass-through rates, which are more relevant to small businesses, are closer to 30 percent, which increases the impact of this new deduction.) More importantly, the deduction shortens the average payback period on the cost of installing additional insulation to 8.1 years, making the investment in energy efficiency even more cost effective for the building owner.

Disaster Relief Reforms and Resilient Buildings

Recent maneuvers by Congressional budget writers provided several positive reforms that will impact the resiliency of buildings in some of the most vulnerable parts of the country.

First, Congress passed improvements to the Federal Cost Share Reform Incentive that increases post-disaster federal cost-share with states from 75 percent to as high as 85 percent on a sliding scale based on whether a state has taken proactive steps to improve disaster preparedness. These steps can include the adoption and enforcement of the most recent building codes. This further incentivizes states to maintain robust and current building codes, including the energy code.

Second, under reforms to the Stafford Act, federal disaster relief funds administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency may be used to replace or restore the function of a facility to industry standards without regard to pre-disaster condition and replace or restore components of the facility not damaged by the disaster where replacement or restoration is required to fully restore the function of a facility. This allows post-disaster funds to be more effectively used to improve the resiliency of damaged buildings and should create opportunities for higher performing roof systems to replace those damaged in disasters.

While the built environment is likely to benefit under recent Congressional action, other policy priorities for the construction and energy efficient industries have been left unresolved. For example, Congress “extended” several clean energy and energy-efficiency related tax provisions, including the Section 179D deduction for commercial building energy efficiency. However, in head-scratching fashion, this and other tax provisions were only extended through December 31, 2017. This means more work is ahead to preserve the policies for the long term and add much needed certainty to the marketplace.

Unpredictable is a polite (and likely understated) description of the policy environment in our nation’s capital. You need not look beyond the recent FY2018 budget deal for an example. Building energy efficiency advocates spent countless hours educating lawmakers on the importance of funding federal research led by the Department of Energy (DOE). Fearing a federal budget that would cripple these vital programs by slashing budgets, advocates saw an 11 percent increase to the DOE’s Office Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy budget, which leads research on building energy performance. And while history is a poor predictor of future success, recent action impacting buildings demonstrates that policymakers understand the need for strong policies that encourage and lead to more efficient and resilient construction.