Building codes at times might feel like a nuisance but they serve a valuable role in protecting our families and homes. In fact most homeowners don't realize there are building codes until they build or remodel a house. Then you might be aware but rarely do you understand how building codes can influence what you build. Building codes are there to protect lives and property during severe weather emergencies like hurricanes.
It wasn't until I ran my handyman business, that I began to learn and appreciate (most of the time) building codes. Building codes set standards for how things get built based on extensive research individual builders can't duplicate, and often they address safety problems like home fires which brought us smoke alarms.
Building Codes and New Jersey Barrier Islands
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and the photo below does tell a story. This photo shows how new building codes are making a huge difference in how well houses withstand storms like hurricanes and flooding, or in the case of Hurricane Sandy, the storm surge (learn more about storm surges, including video simulations). The original section of the house, probably built before there were building codes, collapsed after the water scoured out the sand under the house.
Storm surges aren't an unknown phenomenon in New Jersey or the US. The building codes state “The provisions of this chapter shall apply to building and foundation systems in those areas not subject to scour or water pressure by wind and wave action. Buildings and foundations subject to such scour or water pressure loads shall be designed in accordance with Chapter 16).”
Florida has been the most aggressive in changing its building codes and that's important, as new building codes drive the development of new products. In fact, when we recently sold my in-laws condo in Florida, one of the issues was wood construction (normal in the 1980s when built) versus new code requirements for steel reinforced, concrete walls.
Building Homes to Withstand Hurricane Force Winds
In California, building codes address the most common problems associated with earthquakes so in Florida it makes perfect sense that building codes focus on changes that allow houses to withstand higher winds, as well as flooding. The most vulnerable part of a house in a hurricane is the roof with wind driven uplift, the biggest threat.
Constructing a roof to withstand hurricane force winds illustrates how complex home design and construction is, as many parts have to work together to achieve the desired results. There's a lot more involved than picking out roofing materials.
- Roof design choices — gabled roofs need added bracing while hip roofs (four-sided) are more aerodynamic so they offer more resistance to uplift in high winds. Moderate roof pitch and narrow roof overhangs are also important.
- Structural walls need to be strong enough to secure the roof.
- Roof framing must be properly built and securely attached to the structural walls.
- Roof deck needs to be strong and properly fastened to the roof framing, i.e. using ring-shank nails.
- Any openings with the potential to let in air, must be secure to minimize uplift — doors, garage doors, windows, soffits, etc.
While building codes focus on keeping the roof on, when the roof comes off you are vulnerable to water damage even if the roof decking remains in place. Roof decking has gaps (for expansion and contraction with changes in temperature) and these should be sealed with roofing tape and a more leak and wind resistant underlayment.
By now you must be worrying that you'll never understand everything? When deciding on your new roof, hopefully you now realize there's a lot more to consider than just the color of the roofing shingles. You're learning the value of hiring the right builder or contractor, someone who considers all required factors when putting on a roof (or any other feature in your home), someone who pays attention to the details.
Building Codes that Withstand Storm Surges
Building codes in the US are based on the International Building Code (IBC). States and local communities start with this code, and make adjustments for location unique requirements. As hurricanes affect many coastal states, their requirements have been integrated (learn more about Building Codes and How They Protect Your Home).
The photo here is the back of the same house, showing the 5 feet of sand carried around the house by the storm surge. It also shows that the house suffered minimal damage (yes, they'll be sweeping sand that got inside) which demonstrates that building codes can made a significant difference.
What's Your Strategy for Weather Storms?
Maybe you've never experienced a weather emergency? Chances are that some day you'll have to deal with the aftermath of a flooded river, hail storm or even an earthquake. We know where these types of events typically occur. With global warming, severe weather storms are happening more frequently and in new places.
Here are a few tips to help you start building your strategy for home emergencies.
- Learn about the most common weather emergencies where you live and recommendations for what to do to weather these storms.
- Make a list of modifications to your house that you can make over time, to protect your family and your house. After my house flooded, I have gotten a few low bookcases to keep things off the floor that can't be washed.
- Create a second list of things to do before the storm arrives. In Florida this means stocking up on water and food that doesn't need to be cooked, and yes, boarding up windows.
- Gather critical paperwork you need to protect from any home emergency. Scan all this paperwork so you can access it online if the original paperwork is lost. Family photos are even more important and sadly, I lost most of my photos when my house flooded.
- Put together an emergency contact list with the names and phone numbers of people you might need to reach if you are forced to leave your home. Keep this list together with family medications, so you can grab everything as you leave your home.