Initial Reports Post-Irma Present Positive Building Codes Story, but More Work to Be Done

By Bethany Stough, Glass Magazine
September 25, 2017

Residents throughout the state of Florida are cleaning up after Hurricane Irma and taking stock of how homes and businesses fared during the storm. While there are still many unanswered questions about the extent of the destruction caused by Irma, early indications seem to show that more stringent building code requirements, including those for impact glazing, kept newly built homes and buildings more secure than during past storms.

"The current requirements for impact resistant glazing are a direct result of the destruction brought on by Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago," says Julie Ruth, owner of JRuth Code Consulting and code consultant for the American Architectural Manufacturers Association. "And when Hurricane Charlie hit a little over 10 years ago the increased level of safety was evident."

According to a Sept. 16 Wall Street Journal article, "As homeowners in Florida begin to take stock of the damage from Irma, one pattern is beginning to emerge: homes that were built to the stricter building codes seem to have fared better."

In the article, Bill Wheat, executive vice president and chief financial officer at home-building giant D.R. Horton Inc., said his company’s early assessments “indicate that the more recent building standards post-Andrew over the last 20 years have held up relatively well.”

However, continued strengthening of Florida's building codes is not guaranteed. Florida passed a bill earlier this year that gives the Florida Building Commission flexibility to evaluate whether or not to make code changes to keep up with technological advancement, and removed a requirement that it adopt International Code Council standards every three years.

Proponents of the bill say it will reduce costs and remove some bureaucracy, while critics say the change will weaken the standards that may have just saved Florida from extensive destruction. Additionally, industry experts warn of complacency.

Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in the WSJ article that 25 years after Hurricane Andrew, Florida's government had forgotten lessons learned and was once again letting building-code standards lapse. “The longer you go between hurricanes the more people forget how bad it was and start thinking maybe it was an off year and we can start saving a lot of money if we don’t build to these codes,” he said in the article. "Residents in the Keys had a long warning period this time around, and could prepare. But Hurricane Andrew went from virtually nothing to a powerful storm in just a few days."

Dean Ruark, director of product management, PGT Innovations Inc., notes that it is still too early to determine the extent of the damage throughout Florida and surrounding islands, and how codes aided the performance of local glazing. PGTi, which helped develop Florida's robust building codes, has production facilities in Miami, Venice and Orlando. The company reported that its facilities were not damaged and its inventories were not harmed.

"Hurricane Irma was a true test of impact glazing codes in the most heavily impacted areas, like the Florida Keys and Marco Island ... In the coming weeks, [we will] assess damage post-storm to better understand how whole buildings weathered Hurricane Irma. We can use this event to understand how buildings performed in the current code cycle to ensure we are putting the right efforts into future building. In areas more severely impacted, we can use the post-storm evaluation to drive code changes or enforcement, to ensure that our buildings adhere to the current code."

"[The glass industry] must learn from these storms and then innovate even better products that will allow us to build even more resilient buildings and stronger homes for our families, friends and neighbors," says Jeff Jackson, president of PGTi.