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Articles - building codes Q&A

Building Codes and Natural Disasters: Q&A with ICC’s Tom Frost

Tom Frost is senior vice president of the International Code Council (ICC), a membership association dedicated to developing a single set of comprehensive and coordinated national model construction codes. ICC’s International Codes (I-Codes) have been adopted by most U.S. cities, counties, and states.

Q: What is the importance of building codes when it comes to preventing damage that can occur as the result of natural disasters?
Building codes provide the basis for the design and construction of buildings that can resist the loads imposed by winds, seismic events, or other natural disasters. They also provide restrictions in some places as to the placement of structures when those loads exceed what the buildings can reasonably be designed for, such as flooding or storm surges.

Q: When your organization releases new codes, does it take into consideration lessons learned from past events? For example, will ICC incorporate information that was learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?
That’s an ongoing process. In 2004, when we had the four hurricanes that made landfall in Florida, we followed up with a symposium where the research resulting from the observation of those storms was examined and compared with the current code requirements. We wanted to see if the codes adequately modeled the actual wind forces that were encountered. And to a large degree that was shown to be the case.

March 24 was our code-change submittal deadline for this next code development cycle. This is the cycle where I expect any proposals based on observations made after Katrina or Rita will be debated and considered. So it’s a little early to know precisely what effect observations of Katrina or Rita will have on the code development process.

Q: If information from the hurricanes is incorporated into the I-Codes, when will that happen?
The 2006 edition of the I-Codes hit the street in February. The next full edition that we’ll produce will be in 2009, and the changes that are submitted in response to observations made during Katrina and Rita will be debated in this next code development cycle, which runs approximately 18 months. After that, we’ll release the 2007 supplement. Then there will be another 18-month code development cycle. All of the successful changes from both cycles will then be incorporated into the 2006 code, resulting in the 2009 edition.

Q: Do you think the 2006 I-Codes offer stronger requirements that may prevent damage due to excessive wind or flooding?
I think that they do a better job than previous editions of the codes, and hopefully we can continue to observe that progress in predicting what the wind forces are going to be for various types of structures in various locations. There’s a lot more sampling being taken of actual wind forces during storms than has occurred in years past. And with better information comes better standards and better code requirements.

Q: Do most states and cities use I-Codes?
Yes. The I-Codes are model codes and are adopted by reference by state and local jurisdictions. Since these are models, state and local jurisdictions do provide on occasion local amendments, either for administrative purposes or to reflect what they consider to be particularly unique local conditions. We would prefer that such modifications not be of a technical nature. But at least we’re able to put a model out there that is the basis for the next generation of codes.

What we generally try to do—and I think we do this rather effectively—is to strike a balance between performance and affordability. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to provide a level of performance that no one can afford. So the codes not only have to be accurate in terms of predicting the wind forces or seismic loads depending on what part of the country you’re in, but they also have to be efficient.

Q: Why do you think the I-Codes are effective?
The reason the code continues to grow and become more effective and efficient is because of public participation. We don’t write the codes. We administer the process of open code development that everybody throughout the country participates in. The real opportunity is for people to realize that and participate. For example, rather than make a local amendment, submit it to the national process and give everyone the benefit of that observation and experience.

Q: What do you think is the value of one overall code rather than different regional codes?
Two principle values. First, consistency, so you’re not experiencing different requirements from one region to the next. Second, accessibility. For someone who really wants to follow code development and participate in it, he or she can participate in a single process that has a national impact.

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