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May 16, 2016

CT weighs tougher building codes to combat climate change

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns Bob Hanbury, co-owner of House of Hanbury Builders Inc., seen here at a project his company is doing to expand a veterinary clinic in Farmington, says Connecticut builders already have a strong record of compliance with building codes, from design to construction to inspection. He supports stronger building codes that make sense for the area they're applied.

The homebuilding industry is taking a wait-and-see approach to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's recent executive order directing state agencies to strengthen building codes in response to climate change.

Homebuilders aren't opposed to stronger codes where necessary, particularly in wind-prone areas along the coast, but want decisions based on sound research and cost-benefit analyses. Most importantly, they don't want regulations that price customers out of the market, said Bob Hanbury, a longtime builder and co-owner of Newington-based House of Hanbury Builders Inc., which does residential remodeling and additions. Hanbury is active in the industry, including serving on committees for the International Existing Building Code and on the board of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Connecticut Inc.

“The motives are good; we just want to make sure the outcomes are as good as the motives,” Hanbury said.

Executive order

In April, Malloy issued an executive order instructing the Department of Administrative Services, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the Insurance Department to work with the Office of the State Building Inspector to ensure that the next revision to the State Building Code contains standards that increase the resiliency of new and renovated homes and buildings.

Malloy hasn't proposed anything specific, but said measures to consider include sealing seams in roof decks to guard against water infiltration if shingles blow off; stronger tie-downs of roofs to building structures; and impact-resistant glass in high-wind areas.

Many measures to make buildings more resilient are relatively inexpensive, he said. He also cited research that every $1 spent on resiliency measures can save $4 in insurance claims.

The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) backed Malloy's recommendations. The institute released a report last year on the progress of 18 hurricane-prone coastal states along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast in strengthening their residential building-code systems.

Connecticut scored 88 out of a possible 100, ranking it fifth best among the 18 states, up from a score of 81 in 2012.

Top-rated states have strong statewide residential building codes and regulatory processes for building officials, homebuilders and residential construction contractors, IBHS said. It evaluated 47 key data points to assess the effectiveness of states' residential-building-code programs, including code adoption and enforcement; building official training and certification; and licensing requirements for construction trades that implement building code provisions, IBHS added.

IBHS cited a study conducted by Texas A&M University on hurricane-related building requirements in Texas that found the benefits of adopting the code provisions exceeded the costs by a factor of 4.5 to 7.

Cheap investment

Timothy Reinhold, senior vice president, research and chief engineer at IBHS, cited a study done at the organization's South Carolina research center that tested a duplex in a hurricane simulation. One side of the duplex had its roof deck sealed, at a cost of about $500, the other didn't. The differences in estimated losses between the two sides were about $10,000, he said, or 20 times the cost of sealing.

Hanbury would like to see homeowners get a reduction on insurance premiums for building to higher standards that will save insurers in disasters. Reinhold said some insurers offer incentives, but it differs from state to state.

Builders want standards that make sense and don't price customers out of the market, Hanbury said.

“Will people be able to buy an affordable home in Connecticut if we overbuild on a regular basis compared to our neighbors?” he asked. “Is it worth the extra expense? That should be an individual decision, not a mandate,” unless a home is in a target zone for severe weather.

Some of the governor's ideas wouldn't necessarily make sense on a statewide basis, he said.

“But if we target it to the real high-wind zones … I'm willing to listen to that — that's smart,” Hanbury said.

Reinhold said there are ways to make buildings more resilient at different price points.

“We've had Habitat (for Humanity) homes built to higher standards,” he said. “But again, we tend to base it on the risk, so that in Connecticut, we would be looking at the coastal areas. When you get inland, the risk does drop. You're probably more at risk of trees falling on you, which is a different risk.”

Added Reinhold, “You don't want to make things so expensive that people can't afford to live.”

Severe weather threats

Jessie Stratton, director of policy for DEEP, said talks among state agencies would lead to a code that is more appropriate for the changing climate.

It's not just coastal areas that are prone to trouble; it's also inland riverine areas subject to flooding, she said.

DEEP is concerned about rising sea levels and more intense storms, particularly stronger nor'easters, she said.

Hurricane Sandy destroyed homes along the coast in 2012 and left behind $500 million in private insurance claims in the state, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

“We may or may not get hurricanes, but we clearly are getting more and more nor'easters,” Stratton said. “When you have prolonged rain events that often accompany a nor'easter, you're going through multiple tide cycles and so you have whatever impact there is from rising sea level combined with the water and then any kind of wind-driven storm surge.”

2nd highest coastal insurer property

Connecticut has more insured property value along its coast than any other state but Florida, she said.

“It's a significant issue in terms of maintaining the values of those properties and trying to ensure both the safety of people behind those properties, but also the property has a better chance of being resilient to increased storms,” Stratton said.

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