Building codes: From one extreme to the other

By Ralph Dorio November 18, 2014

Ralph DorioI was fortunate — for two reasons — to visit Newport Beach, California, recently. First, Newport Beach is a really nice place. In the depths of winter, the average low temperature is 50 degrees, and the summer high averages around 75 degrees. I could get used to that. Secondly (and, okay, more important), I was there to present the city with official recognition for maintaining ISO’s Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule (BCEGS®) grade of 1, the highest possible. That’s no small accomplishment for any city, let alone an ocean-front community that sits squarely on top of a seismic fault line.

You might think, “No small accomplishment? They’re on an earthquake fault! They’d have to be crazy not to have strict building codes!” Regrettably, appropriate building codes and effective enforcement don’t happen on their own and simply gravitate to the places they’re needed most.

Newport Beach is one extreme of the spectrum. It sits on the Newport-Inglewood Fault, which has been responsible for some fairly large earthquakes dating back to 1920, with several more since 2000. Fortunately, local government, business, and community leaders knew what to do: Be as prepared as possible to minimize loss through prevention. In a world rife with damage from climate and seismic events, effectively enforcing building codes is one of the best preventive measures a city can take.

Over the years, we’ve collaborated with Newport Beach on their BCEGS grade, something we do with nearly 20,000 communities around the country. We collect data and assess how communities adopt, amend, and enforce codes, all at no cost to the locality. We’re ready to do more because we believe in our message: Communities with well-enforced, up-to-date building codes demonstrate better loss experience when catastrophes occur — and during everyday use.

Ralph Dorio (second from right) recognizes Newport Beach for attaining the highest BCEGS grade (1). Also pictured (left to right) are city officials Kim Brandt, Director of Community Development; Daniel Kennedy, Principal Civil Engineer; Rush N. Hill III, Mayor; Seimone Jurjis, Chief Building Official; and Samir Ghosn, Principal Civil Engineer.

Earlier, I said Newport Beach was one extreme of the spectrum, but I didn’t mean just the spectrum of vulnerability to natural disasters. It’s also at the positive extreme of how well a municipality addresses those risks. Regrettably, hundreds of communities in the United States face similar challenges and do little or nothing about them. For example, in the New Madrid Fault area, which includes parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and several other states, towns with a very real seismic threat remain unprepared. Despite being in a proven, highly vulnerable area, some New Madrid communities still keep the inappropriate building codes and enforcement efforts they’ve had for years.

“They’d have to be crazy not to have strict building codes there!” you might say, and sadly, that’s true. That’s why we’re working hard to demonstrate the value of BCEGS participation across the country. Whether in seismically active areas, hurricane-prone regions, or places where windstorms and hail often threaten, we’re striving to help communities reduce damage through prevention.

For more information and to learn how local building departments can participate, visit our BCEGS website.


Ralph Dorio

Ralph Dorio is the manager of ISO Community Hazard Mitigation.