Building Codes Save Lives and Property in Natural Disaster-Prone Areas
September 20, 2017 Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz

This year’s busy hurricane season reminds us of the importance of complying with building codes that promote the construction of safe and durable structures.

Strict, uniform building codes protect lives and mitigate property damage caused by natural and man-made disasters.

What Are Building Codes?

Building codes protect public welfare by regulating design and construction practices, materials, location, occupancy and maintenance of buildings and structures.

Building codes owe their existence to natural and man-made disasters. A 1631 fire in Boston led to a building code that outlawed thatched roofs and wooden chimneys. Both the Great Fire of London in 1666, which started at a bakery and left 70,000 of 80,000 citizens homeless, and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which began in a barn and left 100,000 homeless, inspired new fire safety regulations and building codes.

Over the years, new codes have been devised and enforced to make structures safer, thus protecting people from injury and property from damage. By 1940, the U.S. had three regional code organizations that merged in 2000 to form the still active International Code Council (ICC), which publishes and enforces all building codes.

Why Are Building Codes Important?

By making structures more resistant to damage caused by natural and man-made disasters, building codes reduce the number of deaths and injuries and save billions of dollars in property.

Inadequate standards and code enforcement, on the other hand, can devastate families, communities and entire states.

Building codes that provide at least minimum standards for safety and soundness also reduce the need for public aid after a disaster and create a level playing field for designers, builders, developers and suppliers.

Studies conducted by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety after Hurricane Charley, in Florida, in 2014, showed a 40 percent reduction in the frequency and a 60 percent reduction in the severity of hurricane-related damage to homes built to stronger building code standards.

Definitely Worth the Trouble

Building codes can frustrate developers and contractors because of the extra time, effort and expense involved in building structures that comply with these regulations. The codes typically are enforced by government agencies through plan submissions, permits, inspections, revisions, re-submission of plans and more inspections and revisions.

Some in the industry believe the system needs an overhaul, claiming that building to code means complying with bare minimum standards to make a project legal, encouraging many builders stop there rather than improve the quality and safety of projects. They say that while codes get stricter, requirements for formal training and specialized construction skills have not, leading to an increased use of untrained workers and cheap materials.

Fortunately, building codes evolve with technology, innovation and each failure and disaster that exposes their weaknesses to become better at protecting lives and property. The 2012 Hurricane Sandy, for example, prompted New York City to design new codes to increase and maintain access to water and electricity in residential buildings.

Cumbersome as the code process may be, it is not to be neglected. Failure to comply can lead to fines and freezing and rebuilding of projects. Building a home to withstand hurricane-force winds adds less than 5 percent to the construction budget—a small investment when it comes to saving lives and protecting property. The old adage holds true: better safe than sorry.

building codes

Building for Hurricanes

The Caribbean is particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and the damage caused by them. These powerful storms have encouraged architectural innovation and stricter construction standards and building codes in that area.

Builders in disaster-prone areas often need to go beyond code to make structures that can withstand extreme circumstances, such as hurricane conditions consisting of strong winds, impact from flying objects, rains, and floods.

Protecting a building from hurricane damage begins at its exterior envelope. Roof trusses and gables must be braced. Hurricane straps must be used to strengthen the links between roof and walls, walls and foundation. Doors and windows should be protected by covering or bracing. Connectors that protect buildings against earthquakes also protect them from hurricane-force winds by providing a continuous load path that redistributes the pressure of the wind on the roof and frame.

Each disaster teaches us to make better, stronger codes—for example, damage from shattered exterior glass lights during Hurricane Wilma, in 2005, prompted southeast Florida to expand building codes to require glass lights made of laminated, tempered, toughened glass with sticky resins that hold shards together.

Building Codes in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is often in the path of Atlantic hurricanes, requiring stricter building codes against this particular natural disaster.

Although local law requires every construction project, however small, to comply with regulations and permits, much of Puerto Rico’s construction, particularly in low-income and mountainous areas, is “informal,” that is, not built to code and illegal.

According to the Permit Management Office, some 75,000 homes on the island have been constructed without permits, making them more vulnerable to natural disasters. Residents, handymen and small contractors build these structures without the supervision of licensed building professionals.

Consulting licensed architects and engineers does not have to be expensive. The Good Samaritan Act provides access to building professionals during emergencies through organizations such as the Puerto Rico College of Engineers and Land Surveyors and the College of Architects and Landscape Architects.

Per the 2011 Puerto Rico Building Code, which follows ICC codes, structures should be designed and constructed to resist 145 mph gusts of wind. Unfortunately, due to lack of new construction during the current economic crisis, most existing homes were built informally or conforming to previous, inferior building codes.

Helpful Links

Following is a list of numerous resources that help consumers, businesses and building professionals protect their communities from natural disasters, including information about building codes and disaster relief.



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