Friday, February 21, 2014

Building codes - brutally violated!

Today, I learned that an investigation of building construction practices in schools hit by the 20 May 2013 tornado in Moore, OK showed the schools were egregiously in violation of building codes.  Seven children died in the Plaza Towers school.  So how can this be happening?

The sad fact is that to anyone with any knowledge of construction practices, doing damage surveys virtually anywhere across the USA will understand how pervasive building code violations are in this nation.  When I participated in the FEMA Building Performance and Assessment Team (BPAT) survey of damage in Moore after the 3 May 1999 tornado in the company of a team of civil engineers, I was appalled by how widespread building code violations were in the rubble of the damage tracks I walked.  I have seen similar things outside of Oklahoma.  It's truly disgraceful how bad construction practices are in the USA.  And they have not changed appreciably since 1999, sadly.

Rural construction often is done in the absence of any local building codes.  But in most communities, local governments have adopted the standards of the American Society of Civil Engineers, more or less verbatim.  Through most of the US, the standard is that structures built to code should suffer no structural damage in winds of up to 90 miles per hour.  It can be argued (and I've done so) that in the tornado-prone parts of the USA, this requirement should be upgraded to match those in hurricane-prone parts of the US eastern and Gulf of Mexico coasts (120 mph).

But, as has been suggested by Tim Marshall, and by my own experience in damage surveys, many if not most structures in the USA aren't even built to that minimal code!  I repeat - how can this be happening?  It seems to me that there are at least three reasons for this blatant disregard of public safety.

Reason #1:  The builders have no financial incentive to build homes properly.  Homeowners typically have no clue about how to evaluate the structural integrity of their homes, and likely never paid any mind to what was actually going on at their homesite when the home was being constructed.  Building to code takes extra time and incurs additional cost for materials.  The builders often seek and are granted "exemptions" from various aspects of the building code by the community politicians.  Homebuilder profits increase when corners are cut and the code violations accumulate.  And some of them simply take outright illegal shortcuts to pad their profits. 

Reason #2:  There's no builder accountability for building code violations.  If the builder is sued for negligence, the company declares bankruptcy and there's nowhere to go for financial redress via the law.  The owner walks away scot-free, perhaps to form a new company and resume the same practices, without penalty.  Corporations and LLCs are created specifically for their executives to avoid personal liability for the practices of their companies.  The company assets can be seized, but the owners are free of accountability.  This is wrong in the case of builders, and needs to be addressed.  Repeat violations should result in the owners being charged and prosecuted as criminals!

Reason #3:  Code enforcement is not even marginally adequate.  Community politicians either don't care about building code violations or they may have been "convinced" by the homebuilders to oppose any attempt to strengthen building codes and/or code enforcement.  Code enforcement is limited by the need for multiple inspections as the structures are built, and inadequate staffing to do a rigorous job.  Code enforcers often join the construction industry in saying "Trust us, everything going on that you don't see is being done properly."  Unfortunately, the sad reality is that this is simply a monstrous lie. 

If you want your structure built to meet code, you essentially need to teach yourself what are proper construction practices and then be on-site every day as the builders work, to ensure they aren't taking code-violating shortcuts.  There are a few scrupulous homebuilders, but endorsements and certifications aren't reliable indicators of their commitment to proper construction practices.   You need to more concerned about structural integrity (and drainage, proper plumbing, and electrical) than about the granite kitchen countertop and the fancy fixtures in the bathroom.  Building in a saferoom as a storm shelter is much easier and less expensive when the home is being built than fitting one in retroactively.

If you don't have any idea of how your home was built, it's probably safe to assume it does not meet even minimal code requirements.  Likewise, the schools your children attend are probably in violation of code requrements - likewise for churches, workplaces, shopping centers, stores, community buildings, entertainment venues, and so on.  It's likely that finding and repairing all the code violations in your home (or other structures) would be so expensive, you'd never be able to afford it.  It's fortunate that the chances of your home being hit by the violent winds of a violent tornado are pretty small on an annual basis.  Most of the time, routine safety precautions will be enough to save your lives.  But every year, someone is hit by a violent tornado, and in some events, routine safety precautions aren't sufficient to save your lives.  Do you have an adequate tornado shelter?  Some unscrupulous shelter companies sell products that aren't sufficiently well-built to provide "near absolute" safety, so shelter buyers should do some homework and not accept claims at face value.

As it stands, there's little hope for a short-term solution to code violations.  The only way this can change even in the long-term is for concerned citizens to rally around the cause of putting some teeth into codes and code enforcement.  If we stay at "business as usual" the problem will never go away.


Joel Genung said...

#3 hit the nail on the head. From my observation, many of the so-called municipal building "inspectors" are nothing more than political appointees who neither have any clue on what the building code specifies nor how the enforcement process is applied. Add to this a large number of builders who will cut corners at any cost simply to increase their bottom line, I think we have at least a partial explanation for the root cause. And I also suspect that many of these "inspectors"can be "paid" to look the other way. Once again the Almighty Dollar rules.

David Schultz said...


I know you mentioned Tim Marshall, but you may reference this peer-reviewed journal article, supporting your point.

Marshall, Timothy P., 2002: Tornado Damage Survey at Moore, Oklahoma. Wea. Forecasting, 17, 582–598.

Chuck Doswell said...

UPDATE: The city of Moore has adopted new, tougher building codes:

Now, can those tougher codes be enforced?