Why the Changes in the Puerto Rico Building Codes Matter
March 2, 2020 Antonio L. Gárate
Person revising construction documents on a table.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Antonio L. Gárate is a LEED AP Certified Architect licensed in Puerto Rico and Florida. He has over 20 years of experience in commercial, residential, institutional and industrial design and management.

Enforcing the current building codes can help ensure each citizen’s safety when a natural disaster occurs.

Throughout its history, Puerto Rico has faced many natural disasters such as droughts, earthquakes and hurricanes. Hurricanes are more common but as we have recently experienced, the Island is also prone to earthquakes, which give no warning and no time for any preparation.

In 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria caused great devastation to Puerto Rico and showed us the lack of preparedness, the vast amount of informal construction, many in areas that flood, among other issues. Even though code compliant structures withstood this phenomenon with minor consequences, the Puerto Rico Building Code (PRBC) has not changed at the rate that it should in order to be able to keep up with current best practices and construction standards. 

Even more recently, since late December 2019, Puerto Rico has experienced a series of unsettling earthquakes. During the month of December alone, Puerto Rico experienced over 2,000 tremors. However, nobody was prepared for the earthquakes that would come in the beginning of 2020.

The first unexpected earthquake happened on January 6 at a 5.8 magnitude. Hours later, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake (the biggest in Puerto Rico in over a century) rocked the southern municipalities of the Island. Its power caused an island wide power outage, destroyed homes and schools. According to Puerto Rico’s Governor Wanda Vázquez, the earthquake caused $110 million in damages across 559 structures.

Since then, thousands of Puerto Ricans have been displaced by the earthquakes. This is one of the many reasons why there’s a need for inspectors to assess damages and need to build safer homes in Puerto Rico. Enforcing the current building codes during the Island’s rebuilding can help ensure each citizen’s safety when a natural disaster occurs.

HOW OFTEN DO THE CODES CHANGE?

In many jurisdictions in the United States the code changes every 3 to 4 years, whereas in Puerto Rico it has changed every seven to twelve years. At this moment, Puerto Rico is up to date with building codes, possibly even more than other jurisdictions, but we have to make sure those codes are updated periodically from now on so that we can keep up with emerging technologies and materials, issues of life safety, energy efficiency, structural requirements and other important aspects of the code.

However, the code is usually adopted by the local jurisdiction in a phase approach through grandfather clauses that allow for a transition period. This did not happen with the 2018 PRBC with federally funded projects that were immediate upon adoption, and there was only a 3-month period for all other project types. The 2011 PRBC allowed for a much longer period. A good transition allows for owners and developers to plan accordingly and budget any cost increases.

There were projects in the past year that suffered a redesign due to the changed aspects of the code. Those abrupt changes resulted in cost increases and time delays. This is why it’s important to have a transition that allows time for good planning and budgeting, to avoid any hardships or even make a project unfeasible.  

WHAT ABOUT THE CURRENT CODE?

The current 2018 Puerto Rico Building Code was enforced to maintain eligibility for federal funding when it became required by FEMA after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. However, structures that followed the previous code were able to withstand these hurricanes. The issue is not only adopting the codes, but also enforcing their use. Puerto Rico can have the latest codes, but if they are not enforced, we can be exposed to the same life risks faced by the storms, earthquakes (as we have recently had), droughts, fires and other threats.

HOW IS THE CODE ENFORCED?

Code enforcement can be achieved by having more code compliance officers in the permitting agencies that actively assess construction activity, which is something that the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is funding. These types of initiatives can better prepare communities for the future.

Another great initiative would be to educate people. Our firm collaborated with Enterprise Community Partners and with other public and private sectors, to developed the Keep Safe: A Guide for Resilient Housing Design in Island Communities. The guide was created to help shape housing construction in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys. It also seeks to make reconstructed homes able to sustain impacts from natural hazards like hurricanes, earthquakes and flooding.

The preparation of this guide was a long and arduous process, but this is only the first step. This needs to continue to be an active effort. These entities and local professionals need to continue what was started and bring this knowledge to the community, which will allow people to be more aware of the importance of code compliance.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

In order for everyone to be able to understand the code when reading the Keep Safe Guide, we included a brief summary a code analysis of a building. This analysis starts with determining the construction type (based on combustible and non-combustible materials), the height, the number of stories, and the building area per floor, to determine if is allowable by code.

The occupant load of the building is determined by calculating the area (SF) of each building use to determine the SF per occupant, number of exits, travel distance to an exit, etc. Based on this information it can be determined from the code: the fire resistance of the floor, walls and roof; the fire separation to the property line and other buildings; the area of exterior fenestration, etc. Fire protection requirements are also based on the code analysis, this includes automatic fire sprinkler, fire alarms, and smoke control.

Another important aspect of the code is the mean of egress. The code establishes the required egress width, egress illumination, accessibility requirements, fire ratings, areas of refuge at stairs, exit signs, panic and exit hardware, exit stairs, and all that lead to the exit discharge to a public way. There are very specific requirements in the code that cannot be missed and are critical for one’s safety. For example, an emergency escape and rescue opening are required at each sleeping room in residential occupancies for building 3-stories or less.

There are many requirements in the codes that are important for building repairs, remodeling or new construction, which the architects and engineers need to review for the specific project at hand and incorporate them into the design.

FURTHER READING: BUILDING CODES SAVE LIVES AND PROPERTY IN NATURAL DISASTER-PRONE AREAS

HOW CAN THE CODE AFFECT MY LIVING SPACE?

An important aspect of the code is the more stringent energy efficiency requirements that allow for cost savings during the operation of a building. Although this might represent higher construction costs, the long-term savings outweighs the first costs. There are also aspects of the code such as the new Tropical Climate section and other amendments, that promote cross ventilation and higher thermal resistance of the building envelope to allow for more comfortable spaces and the same time, and reduce the need for larger mechanical equipment for areas that include air conditioning.

CONCLUSION

Although the changes to the code could mean higher construction costs that can potentially impact the construction industry, businesses, public entities and the general public, the end result creates structures that are safer and more resilient. This, in the long term, represents cost savings. As building stronger structures allows for less damage and costly retrofits, more energy and water efficiency lead to operational savings, and other benefits. Even though code changes could represent higher costs, the integrated design processes and strategies can mitigate its impact.

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