Design

9 Ways Natural Disasters Are Changing Your Local Building Codes

Stricter building codes could protect homes from hurricanes and wildfires.
Tony Carrick Avatar
Natural Disasters Are Changing Your Local Building Codes - home construction aerial view

Photo: istockphoto.com

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When Hurricane Ian ripped through Florida in September 2022, it caused between $41 billion to $70 billion in storm damage and 148 deaths. In 2018, California’s Camp Fire tore through the northern part of the state, resulting in $16.5 billion in damage and at least 85 deaths.

Natural disasters have become all-too-frequent occurrences, and while we cannot keep them from happening, we can at least learn from them. State, local, and federal governments and agencies are pushing for stricter codes that require buildings to be more resistant to flood, fire, and high winds in order to protect homeowners and reduce property damage.

Ahead, find out more about some of the proposed building codes designed for natural disasters.

1. FEMA and Biden announce a national initiative to advance building codes.

With natural disasters becoming more devastating each year, the Biden administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency unveiled an initiative in 2022 that pushes for code changes that will protect homes from these natural disasters. The initiative calls for more stringent building codes to make homes in coastal areas more resistant to hurricane-force winds and flooding. It also calls for homes in wildfire-prone areas to be more fire resistant, and be built with noncombustible building materials.

2. Wildfires are making some communities say “see ya!” to cedar shakes.

Natural Disasters Are Changing Your Local Building Codes - roof on fire
Photo: tombyerroofingservice.com

Some communities in California, including Los Angeles, are fighting wildfires by building homes that are less susceptible to burning. How? By banning cedar shake roofing and siding, which help fuel wildfires and cause homes to burn more quickly. The preferred alternative is fire-resistant asphalt shingles and fiber cement siding.

3. Wider driveways will give fire trucks better access to homes in wildfire-prone zones.

In addition to making homes more fire resistant, some building codes are trying to make it easier for emergency personnel to respond to house fires. How? By requiring new-construction homes to have wider driveways. California communities including Montecito recommend that homeowners have driveways with a minimum of 10 feet of clearance on both sides to allow for fire trucks to get in—and residents to get out—in the event of a wildfire.

4. Orange County says “no” to open soffits on roofs.

Natural Disasters Are Changing Your Local Building Codes - boxed eaves
Photo: wildfirepartners.org

Since 1993’s Laguna Beach fire, all new-construction homes in Orange County, California, have been mandated to have roofs with boxed rather than open eaves. Boxed eaves (see photo above) are another way to shore up a home’s fire resistance: Embers from wildfires can travel a half mile or more in front of a fire. With open soffits, these embers sometimes end up in attics, where they can more easily set homes on fire. Boxed eaves have closed soffits covered with a noncombustible material that prevents hot embers from blowing into the home.

5. Buffer zones between houses and vegetation will get larger.

Such states as California and Texas are adopting or considering new building standards that will make homes more fire resistant. These new guidelines mandate the use of fire-resistant building materials, including double-paned glass windows and noncombustible ember screens on attic vents. Other measures include requiring a larger buffer zone between homes and vegetation, which can fuel wildfires. Putting these standards into effect can extend the time it takes for a home to burn by hours, giving residents and emergency services time to respond.

6. Older homes on Florida’s coast may have to be retrofitted to comply with new codes.

After Hurricane Ian blew through Florida, one thing was clear: Many homes built following the state’s adoption of the 2018 International Residential Code (IRC) remained standing while older homes that did not were leveled. Now, storm damage experts are pushing for Florida to consider requiring older homes to be retrofitted to meet updated IRC building code standards.

7. Communities in Colorado are shunning stick-built homes.

Natural Disasters Are Changing Your Local Building Codes - workers evaluating home
Photo: colorado.edu

This one is more a trend than a new building code—for now: Some folks who lost their homes to the Marshall Fire in 2021 are rebuilding smarter, and more sustainably, by using old-school building materials. Communities in wildfire-ravaged areas of Colorado are trading out modern stick-and-frame construction for earthen blocks and roof tiles, which have been around for millennia. Not only are these building materials fire resistant, but the intense heat created by a wildfire can also make those blocks stronger by heating them into brick.

RELATED: What Happens if You Remodel a Home Without a Permit?

8. Louisiana’s new code nails down reinforced roofs.

Louisiana is constantly updating its building code to make new construction more resistant to high winds and flooding. The newest version of its building code, which goes into effect in 2023, includes small changes intended to better fortify roofing on residential homes. The code mandates new nailing patterns that help ensure roofing tiles will stay in place during high winds, and help provide an additional barrier to prevent roof leaks.

9. Florida homes are being fortified against flooding.

Natural Disasters Are Changing Your Local Building Codes - coastal home flooding
Photo: istockphoto.com

Communities in hurricane-ravaged states are combatting storm surges and high winds that cause devastating flooding by raising homes off the ground and increasing wind speed standards. Mexico Beach, Florida’s response to the devastation they suffered from Hurricane Michael in 2018: Codes that require builders to elevate new construction several feet higher, and equip them to withstand wind speeds of up to 140 miles per hour.