building codes and IO.

This week I attended the 2018 Natural Hazards Workshop hosted by the Natural Hazards Center in Broomfield, CO. The workshop brought together researchers, practitioners, and government employees from (mostly) around the US and the world. Discussions focused on twenty big questions and sought answers for reducing disaster risk. While I attended great panels that questioned the nature of research, challenged us to be deliberate in our use of language, and pondered why we are not more connected with policymakers (who were noticeably absent from the workshop), it was the panels on building codes that I found to be the most interesting. (Don’t get me wrong, the other panels were incredibly thought-provoking and I will be reflecting on them in the coming weeks!).

Building codes are the topic of many a discussion involving hazard risk and mitigation. For those in the developed world, it’s a question of do we need to strengthen building codes, and for those in the developing world, it’s often a discussion of how to enforce building codes (this is certainly a generalization – I know the discussions are more complex and nuanced in all locales). And many times at this workshop I heard the phrase “we just need to update the building codes.”

Whoa. That ain’t no easy thing. Building codes are political in their very nature. Where do we build? What are we allowed to build and where? And when we start talking about hazard-resistant design, what is good enough? What is the level of performance for which we do and *should* build?

I heard one panelist state that ‘owners have unrealistic expectations of building performance’ and I thought, “Man, that is so true.” While I am more familiar with seismic provisions than provisions for other hazards (flooding, fire, wind, etc.), I’m sure this holds true across hazards. Our building codes currently only provide for life-safety. Buildings are designed to safely evacuate occupants during a hazard and what happens after that isn’t certain. A building can withstand a hazard to the point of safe evacuation but can then need to be torn down and rebuilt. And I don’t think the general public or even many building owners understand this. So where is the disconnect? Have we as engineers not been doing our part to educate owners and occupants? How do we communicate with developers, policymakers, and residents to promote a factual discussion of risk? What even is the best performance level?

Immediate Occupancy (IO) – a performance level that designs buildings to be immediately occupiable following a hazard – is getting a lot of attention recently. The Senate asked NIST to investigate IO as a performance objective, and I listened to a fabulous panel of NIST researchers who discussed their findings following a year-long investigation. They raised so many poignant questions about IO. When should we design for IO? Should it be voluntary or mandatory? What hazard risks should be accounted for? What does “immediate” mean? Is a building really IO if the infrastructure services (transportation, water, power, etc.) that support it aren’t operating? There is still a lot to sort out here.

But I was most interested in the social implications of IO. Who gets an IO building? Should we be designing buildings that house vulnerable populations to IO? Who pays for those buildings? While the initial capital investment for IO is not significantly greater than the cost of the current design standard, it still requires additional investment. In resource-limited communities, who bears this cost. We know that vulnerable populations often live in areas more exposed to hazard risk. What happens if we start designing IO buildings based on ability-to-pay? How does this exacerbate inequality and make vulnerable populations even more vulnerable?

There are still many questions to be sorted out as the discussion around IO moves forward, and all parties need to be invited to the table – engineers, sociologists, policymakers, politicians, etc. And as California currently has a bill in the legislature promoting IO or ‘functional recovery’ as the building standard, I’m sure we are soon going to hear more debate on this issue.


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