State of Building Code: Adaptive Building
Clayton ShepardsonMarketing the advantages of Green Building to facilitate adoption
This building code article, of the Adaptive Building series, is essentially the WHY I am writing this whole series. As a young individual entering the real world, I learn more about the procedures and systems society has set up for decades and even centuries. Yet, I often grow confused as to why society, as a whole, has a toxic relationship with development and growth. Further down, you will see me define the toxic relationship as “fool me once…” well you know how the rest goes. In essence, we seem to underestimate many risks to our health until it is too late.
This building code article will briefly mention how building codes are created, why the current process is beginning to lose its ability to serve the safety of society, with recent examples of both extreme weather and non-weather-related events, and finally a question: how can building owners/inhabitants incentivize builders to build well beyond the minimum standards allowed by building codes? Here is my provocative thought: Would making construction companies stakeholders of their builds/liable for large scale repairs be enough to provide a sufficient incentive to not use minimum standards? Keeping in mind that with risk there should also be reward.
State of Construction: Buildings Code
I want to be clear that my intent through this series of adaptive building articles is not to say we have been doing things all wrong. My points aim, instead, to say that now is the time to reconsider our “way of doing things” with building, as we are with energy and virtually every other industry.
While I speak in terms of new construction, keep in mind that these holistic considerations can also apply to our existing building stock. As I mentioned in the first article, climate change is happening faster than the natural life cycle of our buildings (even with extreme storms and human development induced disasters tearing buildings down). To truly decarbonize we must consider retrofits. When retrofits are needed, we can still think holistically and attempt to solve more problems than just the most pressing issue in a single construction period. However, we waste time, resources, and lives the longer we remain tied to the conventional way of building. Any building built in the next decade will play a big role in the most crucial half century of climate action we have.
What are Building Codes?
Building codes are an incredible feat and example of bringing a variety of stakeholders to a conversation table to formulate standardized safety measures. To breifly mention, codes are formed by private groups, such as the International Code Council (ICC), by collecting historical data which is then leveraged into specific thresholds a building must meet to follow the building codes at hand.
The large majority of building codes are created by determining what an acceptable amount of risk is a building can take. It is important to note and understand that ‘acceptable risk’ implies a minimum performance. Then, code developers define a time period, pull historical example data, and use statistics to understand the likelihoods of weather conditions that are likely to affect the building for the next 100 years. For instance, most codes are written for the 100-year storm. So, using statistics, the building will be created to withstand the might of any statistically possible storm within the next 100 years.
It is hard to imagine where we would be without building codes. They have kept an incredible amount of people safe and are a literal representation of people coming together as a society to evolve. Those facts are under appreciated because safe buildings and general shelter are being seen more as a human right than a privilege. However, if the building industry remains in its business as usual (BAU) methods, it will stay on its current trajectory that will force people to appreciate a safe building more than ever before… And we don’t want that. Taking safe buildings for granted is a sign that they are normalized within society. As you will see with the Surfside Condo example and quotations, your safety in a building is vague, and fear for your safety is becoming more justifiable.
People would still live in buildings just like people still drive their car every day. But, for example, if flying on a plane became more dangerous than driving a car, people would likely second guess their plans to board a plane, and airlines would spend more money proving passengers are safe on their planes. “Proving” as in being so sure in all the safety measures that [said company] has taken that they can say “we are fully liable for your life. We won’t argue dollar amounts and shift blame… That’s how sure we are.” Do we really want to have “you’re safe in our buildings” as the most effective marketing campaign for construction companies in the future?
By using historical precedent and modelling with statistics, building codes are essentially saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” In a dynamic where we must first be fooled, lives will and have been lost. Even if we learn our lesson after the first time, there will be a lot of new first-time fools with the climate crisis driving extreme weather and many other effects human development has had on the planet. Do we really need people to die every time for us to decide a minimum standard must be shifted/increased?.. only to lose more lives to shift that same minimum standard a decade or so later? That is a toxic relationship.
Change Beyond Statistics
“Withstanding the test of time” is no longer a given (within whatever confidence interval building codes are made with), it has now become a chance. There is a chance the data used to create building codes represent the future, and that chance is shrinking. Or in statistical logic, it is much harder to achieve the desired confidence interval with the conventional data sets. As I have stated above, building codes are created by catering to a large percentage of precedented and statistically likely weather and geographic conditions. Unfortunately, our natural storms are becoming unnaturally strong with each one bringing an unprecedented amount of devastation to our doorsteps; the complete opposite of a precedented event required for our current building code creation procedures. So, what do you do when statistics and past events cannot predict the future as well as before?
Every 100 years is more than “once in a lifetime” considering life expectancy in the first world countries float around 80. Here is the first step of adaptive building acceptance: “I understand that this building will outlive my occupancy, my life altogether, and the average external conditions the building routinely faces…” On paper, preparing for the 100-year event is smart as it accommodates the “once in a lifetime event,” as well as protecting the first occupant for their entire life (think of building a home for your family with children to move into).
However, the intelligence of this logic is waning. As you may remember, the last 10 years has had an absurd amount of “once in a lifetime events” in hurricanes alone, not to mention floods, draughts, wildfires, and many other problems humanity has never had to consider “unnatural”.
This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters link is particularly interesting to explore. A storm costing at least a billion dollars does not indicate that it was a once in a hundred years storm, but the exponential increase from the 80s is terrifying. Moving to the “Events” tab, we start to get a sense of the increasing strength and damage of storms we have and will continue to experience. Historic and record-breaking language is routinely mentioned, and not because of exaggeration.2 In the past 5 years, Texas has frozen over, an inconceivable amount of forest has burned, and our coasts have been continuously slammed by an unrelenting amount of powerful hurricane winds and torrential rainfall. For the first time ever, we ran out of letters in the alphabet to name tropical storms!
Take this snippet from Hurricane Laura’s entry: “Hurricane Laura was a powerful category 4 … Winds up to 150 mph and storm surge in excess of 15 feet caused heavy damage along the coast and inland to the city of Lake Charles … Laura was the strongest hurricane (by maximum sustained windspeed at landfall) to hit Louisiana since the 1856 Last Island hurricane.” 3 THERE IT IS! The over one-hundred-year storm! It took over 150 years for the Last Island hurricane to happen again. Jokes on us because Hurricane Ida would do the same thing only a single year later.
Since 2017, four out of the five years exceeded the decade average for acres burned by wildfire nationally.2 With 2019 as the outlier, how ridiculous does is sound to call ‘slightly below average destruction’ the outlier?
A building that is made to withstand the 100-year storm most likely cannot take a continuous pounding of the not-so-once in a lifetime storms every few years. A building may not fall with the first storm, but like human joints, buildings can lose their strength and structural integrity when they are continuously beaten.
The threshold of what we call an ‘average storm’ is shifting, and therefore, so is the threshold of what is considered a “100-year storm” associated with this average. When we draw up new construction plans, we must stop looking at building health and safety in regard to the single point in time (its construction). Even when we look to the future, we cannot solely rely on what the “new average” tells us. This threshold will continue to shift in an unpredictable way, and in my opinion, we have yet to experience the most dramatic shift. We have been fooled twice, yet where is the shame? The next intelligent move is to adopt adaptive building.
The use of minimum standards still present safety concerns unrelated to a single extreme weather event. As said, minimum standards imply a minimum performance and an incentive to cost cut. On top of this, our buildings are built in the lens of a single point of time that “accommodates” the environment, but it doesn’t accommodate the effects of human development. Similar to how impossible it is to imagine every scenario that a building can be used for to achieve an internally adaptive, ‘adaptive reuse’ building, we cannot imagine how humans of the future will alter our environment.
Let’s use the recent collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominiums in Miami Florida over a year ago as ‘non-extreme weather’ example. The condo collapse exemplifies the dangers of building to (and maintaining) minimum standards. At the end, I outline how, in my opinion, external considerations seem to have been brushed aside as non-influential.
This unfortunate event that claimed 98 lives is now understood to be a combination of legal, and potentially but yet-to-be-proven illegal negligence, and environmental factors. The building was built to minimum code standards in the 70s (except the floor slabs that didn’t meet code at the time) and left to be adapted over time. But when push came to shove, money was not spent on repairs, and upgrades were left to multi-year discussions of figuring out who would pay for it while damage continued to accrue. It came out to a grand total of $16 million in expected repair costs by 2020, right before it collapsed. 3
In what is assumed to be cost cutting measures, which is the problem of minimum standards, engineers only installed one shear wall, reduced support columns to a third of the size compared to the section of the building that didn’t collapse (24x24 to 16x16), and neglected/nonexistent or [too late] retrofitted waterproofing. 3
Konrad Putzier and company’s 2021 Wall Street Journal investigation article provide a wealth of information and quotations that affirm my arguments made in this Adaptive Building series. As mentioned, code allows minimum standards, but even they can be circumvented: “The risks of some of the choices made four decades ago were well known at the time, but building codes generally gave developers wide leeway.” 3 The article would go on to mention the devastation of 92’s Hurricane Andrew which would lead to some building reform. 3 What were risks for the late 70s, early 80s, are now multiplied by fact that the ‘minimum standard’ has now shifted, forgetting any of the existing building stock.
However, despite codes evolving over time, albeit after devastation, inspections don’t always do building health justice: “Morabito Consultants identified extensive repairs that would be required for the [Champlain Towers South Condominium] recertification process, but there was nothing in the firm’s findings to indicate that the building itself was at risk of complete structural failure, that it was at imminent risk of collapse, or that it should be deemed unsafe for occupation,” 3
Oh, but we can retrofit right? Sure, we can, but now the building’s health is placed in the hands of a stalled debate. “The owners of the south tower had dragged their feet on making structural repairs and other fixes, as the total cost had swelled to more than $16 million, documents show. It was to be paid by residents in a contentious special assessment. ‘We have discussed, debated, and argued for years now,’ Ms. Wodnicki, the condo-board president, said in an April letter to residents.” 3
So, what is missing? Was this an incident of pure chance? I do not think so. These structural issues are without a doubt the main causes of the condo collapse. However, I firmly believe we are still severely underestimating the environments effects on our buildings, and how we evolve to respond to these effects in the future (reacting only after disaster strikes). The conundrum exemplifies the need for an in-depth site/environmental analysis. Out of all my information pooling for this tragedy, there was only one mention of external forces, and that was due to human activity: construction on a nearby sight with no direct correlation to its contribution to the condo’s collapse.
One natural phenomenon seems to have been overshadowed by the investigations tearing into the inspection reports. Land subsidence is the event where the surface, where our buildings sit, sinks due to underground caverns losing their structural integrity/pressure due to pumping ground water or oil out for human use. Land subsidence is a continuing effect measured in distance (mm) per year. Florida International University Professor Shimon Wdowinski’s spent a lot of time documenting how many parts of Miami were sinking in the 90’s. In the 90s… that means it was marginally worse by 2020.5
“It is reasonable for people to be worried about this happening again because Champlain is not unlike many other buildings throughout the state,” Roberto Leon, Virginia Tech engineering professor 3
By and large, we do not know if this is an epidemic problem among our building stock, and that in itself is a problem. The Surfside condo was deemed to be in no imminent danger during inspections; how many other buildings are similarly troublesome to deem ‘dangerous?’ We, as a society, are about to face the biggest crisis and mobilization of resources. Do we really want to be in the middle of the climate battle to find out the majority of our buildings are not prepared to keep us safe? As I have said in the introduction, we do not want society consciously appreciating safe buildings, because that would mean unsafe buildings become more common. The incentive to cost cut in construction will exist for as long as minimum standards are allowed.
In the end…
It may seem difficult to cater to every miniscule safety whim, but the question of our future safety is not miniscule. One of my surface level suggestions, while writing this, is that we need to keep construction companies as stakeholders in the buildings they erect. They need some skin in the game after the construction dust settles.
Do you have ideas on how construction companies can be feasibly locked in as stakeholders for repairs to their previous projects? My preliminary idea: give construction companies a cut of every future resale of their buildings, but mandate said construction companies to update their buildings to current code on every resale. Similar to resale mandated Home Energy Assessments (that will be talked about in a later article). If no updates are needed then that is money in their pocket. If updates are needed, their cut of the resale will not be big enough to cover retrofit costs. This could be a low effort revenue stream with proper construction planning and accounting.
For other ideas, this Living Building Challenge link shares their thoughts and recommendations to help evolve our building codes to propogate a more thoughtful and sustainabile future. The Living Building challenge advocates for what I call Adaptive Buildings. On top of that, they require other, non-building performance construction considerations/requirements similar to other green building certification programs.
Comment any thoughts or ideas down below!
1 [Cover Image] Goggin, C. (2021, February 2). Sandwich home buckles under force of relentless coastal flooding. Boston News, Weather, Sports | WHDH 7News. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://whdh.com/news/sandwich-home-buckles-under-force-of-relentless-coastal-flooding/
2 NOAA. (2022, July). Billion-dollar weather and climate disasters. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters | National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/monitoring/billions/
3 Putzier, K., Calvert, S., & Levy, R. (2021, August 25). Behind the Florida condo collapse: Rampant Corner-Cutting. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/behind-the-florida-condo-collapse-rampant-corner-cutting-11629816205
4 Smith, A. B. (2020, January). 2010-2019: A landmark decade of U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters. 2010-2019: A landmark decade of U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters | NOAA Climate.gov. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.climate.gov/news-features/blogs/beyond-data/2010-2019-landmark-decade-us-billion-dollar-weather-and-climate
5 Tejedor, C. (2021, July 15). FIU professor: Collapsed surfside building showed signs of subsidence in '90s. FIU News. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://news.fiu.edu/2021/fiu-professor-collapsed-surfside-building-showed-signs-of-subsidence-in-90s-era-space-radar-data
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Clayton is a Bentley University Alumnus. He became increasingly involved in environmental impact work throughout his tenure at Bentley. Much of his professional experience is working in the home energy industry. He served as a marketing intern and technician for a local solar company, and worked for the Mass Save Program’s quality assurance company, Abode EM. Recently, Clayton was inducted into the Millennium Fellowship, became LEED Green Associate Certified and he will be working at Schneider Electric as a Sustainability Consultant come June 2022.
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