State Begins Work on Building Code

Wed July 19, 2006 - Southeast Edition
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MOBILE, AL (AP) Scenes of buildings crumbled by Hurricane Katrina’s fierce winds and surging waves have been spotlighted as examples of poor construction and lax building codes on the Gulf Coast.

The push for stricter codes actually started in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew but accelerated last year from many directions, including the insurance industry, mortgage bankers, government agencies and some builders.

An Alabama commission created by the Legislature has begun work on a statewide building code aimed at reducing future storm damage. Louisiana and Mississippi also have made some code upgrades.

State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk, chairman of the Alabama Building Code Study Commission, said the state already has some statewide codes, but they are administered by different agencies, including the state Health Department, the Alabama Building Commission or the Fire Marshal’s Office.

Paulk said the 12-member commission’s goal is to have one set of codes used by everybody.

Cities and counties could have stricter codes, but not weaker than the statewide code, he said. Coastal counties, for example, could require construction able to withstand higher winds than required by Montgomery or Birmingham.

Issues of enforcing a statewide code and paying for it remain unsettled. Another question: Are there enough engineers to work with thousands of homebuilders on any mandatory residential changes?

Large cities have building departments with staffers who go out and inspect construction projects, Paulk said, but rural areas may not have those inspectors or lack codes at all.

Federal officials have urged states and local agencies to adopt and enforce building standards and model codes for hurricanes — and to make changes in building practices.

A report by the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) pointed to roof failures, damages from wind-blown gravel, failures of electrical equipment and masonry walls during Katrina.

“It is very important to have building departments both at the state and local level adequately qualified and staffed to adopt and enforce the building codes,” Shyam Sunder, acting director of NIST’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory in Gaithersburg, MD, said.

Sunder said after Andrew hit south Florida there was a “significant step up” in building codes “and also research that feeds into those requirements in terms of building codes.”

Now the insurance and mortgage banking industries have joined others in pressing for stricter building codes because of Katrina’s destruction mainly in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Louisiana has adopted a statewide code since Katrina struck Aug. 29. It goes into effect next year. Mississippi required stricter codes for five of its coastal counties and any municipalities in those counties — Harrison, Hancock, Jackson, Pearl River and Stone counties — making the changes optional for the rest of the state.

Mississippi’s new 26-member Building Codes Council held its first meeting July 10.

The Alabama commission is looking at the International Building Code and NFPA Life Safety Code to determine what is appropriate for the state.

“We’re for a statewide building code under the right circumstance,” said Russell Davis, vice president of the Home Builders Association of Alabama, which has 11,000 members and has a representative on the Code Study Commission. “What we’re not for is one driven by manufacturers for their own industry-specific purpose.”

Home builders are concerned that manufacturers could attempt to inject requirements for certain products in a statewide code.

But Davis said builders are aware there’s a momentum for a statewide code after Katrina. On the coast, Mobile and Baldwin counties imposed stricter building codes after the hurricane.

The Baldwin County Commission approved new codes that require buildings to withstand different wind gusts: 140 mph at Ono Island and Fort Morgan on the gulf coast; 130 mph from Interstate 10 south; 120 mph from I-10 to I-65 and 110 mph north of I-65.

For its report due in February, the state’s Code Commission will survey other states to determine the types of statewide building codes and enforcement systems that work.

It also will survey laws of other states and jurisdictions, including professional standards of care for architects, engineers, fabricators, contractors, and builders, regarding minimal construction standards.

In its post-Katrina inspections in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, NIST found many roofing failures resulted from an inadequate number of fasteners being used in installation or fasteners being incorrectly located.

NIST, which does not issue codes, recommended that state and local governments consider licensing of roofing contractors, educating them and conducting field inspections of roofs under construction.

Some masonry walls failed because walls were improperly anchored and reinforced, NIST said.

The report also covered the performance of bridges, parking garages, moored casino barges, portable classrooms and mobile homes.

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