The Best Thing to Happen to My Residential Design Career

In August 2004, Hurricane Charley was forecast to make landfall in Tampa, but it changed direction and headed to Punta Gorda in southwest Florida, which caused people there to scramble with last-minute preparations. The storm also increased in strength before hitting the coast, with gust wind speeds up to 150 mph.

Sound familiar?

Hurricane Ian followed Charley’s path and left behind new damage and destruction in its wake.

In Punta Gorda, typical storm damage was seen in the form of flooded streets, fallen trees, and scattered debris, but many homes and buildings exposed to Charley suffered minimal or no visible disturbance. Thanks to Hurricane Andrew.

Andrew hit Miami in 1992, the second strongest to land in Florida, killed 44 people, and caused an estimated $26 billion in damage. The statewide building codes were updated, and some storm-specific requirements were included.

In 2007 the Florida Building Codes were updated further, and a new edition was published. Higher floor elevations, impact windows or shutters, and other measures were strengthened, providing additional protection.

The owner of a local remodeling company, Joe Schortz, compared Charley to a spring-cleaning event. He told the Washington Post, “Charley destroyed many of the older homes with the winds.” Schortz said that buildings erected since 2007 appear to have survived Ian with little or no damage.

This explains the noticeably varying levels of destruction in the news images. Aerial photos showing seemingly random destruction in Ian’s wake — a house still standing next to one that was washed off its foundation — can largely be attributed to new attention to the construction codes.

As a residential designer, stricter codes as the result of hurricanes are the best thing to ever happen to my career.

Design professionals consistently obtain higher fees in areas where building codes are stricter and updated regularly, and plan review is required for permitting.

The media says the building code was made more stringent. From my perspective, we fundamentally have not changed the materials used to build in Florida over the past three decades. What has changed substantially is the amount of detail provided in a set of construction drawings describing how those materials go together.

Before 1992, permits could be obtained with a floor plan, exterior elevations, a foundation plan, and a single wall section. My first set of plans was permitted when I was 16 years old. I still have the drawings. Everything needed was found on three or four pages.

Today, the same house might require as many as 14 or 15 pages of architectural drawings and engineering plans. Not to mention hundreds of pages of letter-size sheets containing product approval reports, installation specifications, and pre-engineered truss cut sheets.

Despite the changes, there has not been any reduction in the rights of residential designers who depend on the exemptions in the architectural laws to practice in Florida. Of the homes destroyed by Andrew, 100 percent were designed by licensed design professionals. There was no magic in having a license.

Two grand juries convened in the immediate aftermath of the storm found that homes in hard-hit Dade County (now Miami-Dade County) were especially vulnerable to the powerful hurricane because of a toxic trio of poor design, shoddy construction, and inadequate inspection.

Building codes work because design and construction professionals improve themselves with building code training and then work closely with plan reviewers and inspectors to design and build safe buildings.

Following Hurricane Charley, Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) researchers closely examined the affected region and specifically looked at claim frequency and severity using data from a major insurer in the area, including a random sample of closed insured claims.

While Hurricane Charley caused significant damage, IBHS’ analysis showed a 40 percent reduction in the frequency and a 60 percent reduction in the severity of damage to homes built after 1996, when we began increasing the complexity of permit submittals and scrutinizing building inspections.

This is clear and convincing evidence that Florida’s code requirements improved the performance of design, construction, and inspection. And thus, the resiliency of the homes within our state.

But there is still work to do.

Since its inception, the American Institute of Building Design has supported the I-Codes, particularly the International Residential Code, or IRC.

As the IRC, and the plan review process, are adopted by jurisdictions throughout America, I’ve observed dissonance by home designers frustrated because what was originally accepted is now denied.

I encourage us to embrace the building code and become a student of it. It causes professional building designers, particularly Certified Professional Building Designers (r), to stand out among the rest. And maybe demand higher fees.

I also want to thank Mike Battaglia, the AIBD member who has chaired our Building Codes and Standards Committee, for all of his hard work and time away from his business.

Mike and I have joined together to testify on behalf of AIBD at many ICC code development hearings. To be honest, I wasn’t all work. There were a few opportunities to play mixed in.

I would also like to introduce you to Jack Butler, the AIBD member who has graciously volunteered to fill Mike’s shoes.

Jack is currently the Assistant Town Manager of Oakland, Florida. He is a certified city planner, in addition to being a building contractor. Code enforcement is part of his department in the City of Ocoee, Florida. He has experience writing Florida statutes, city and county codes, and court filings. Jack has chaired committees for the Institute of Transportation Engineers, NASA, the Florida City and County Management Association, and the Florida League of Cities.

Join the other AIBD members who have volunteered to help Jack by filling out a short volunteer form and providing your name and email address.

There are other committees accepting volunteers too.

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