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Advancing Resilience through Building Codes and Standards

How the Administration is working with the private sector to make our buildings safer and more resilient:

As the President emphasized in his 2016 Proclamation for National Building Safety Month, buildings across our country provide safety and shelter, serving as a foundation for our daily life.  From the earliest homes to modern high-rises, buildings have reflected an understanding of risk at the time of construction, often factoring only the conditions that were experienced historically. The accelerating impacts of climate change and extreme weather pose new significant challenges for the built environment.  To address these challenges and others, including earthquakes and tornados, design professionals and developers in both the public and private sectors are taking steps to design buildings that go beyond minimum life-safety requirements and incorporate the principles of resilient, performance-based design.

While these individual measures are significant, we recognize the need to institutionalize resilience more holistically across the country.  To further that goal, today the White House convened public and private sector stakeholders to highlight the central role that building codes and standards play in contributing to community resilience.  At the event, Federal agencies and private sector stakeholders announced a series of new actions and commitments to advance resilience of the built environment through building codes and standards, and building design. 

Building Codes and Standards: Adapting to a Changing Climate

Building codes set the baseline for the safe design and construction of our homes, schools, and workplaces, providing the minimum requirements to adequately safeguard the health, safety and welfare of building occupants. 

Building codes and standards also influence the design of buildings and their ability to withstand natural disasters and the impacts of climate change– including hotter temperatures, more extreme weather, flood, and drought.  How can we ensure that buildings will perform under the impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels, extreme heat conditions, and more intense storms?  Compounding this challenge, infrastructure in many cities has exceeded its design life, increasing our vulnerability.  What has guided design choices in the past – average temperatures, return intervals of certain heavy precipitation events, and stationary sea levels – can no longer safely guide us in our building choices.  By incorporating resilience and the impacts of climate change into the building code and standards development process, we can help ensure that our homes, schools, and workplaces can better withstand climate impacts and position our communities to recover more quickly when disasters happen.  As the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy stated “Using disaster-resistant local building codes is the most effective method to ensure new and rebuilt structures are designed and constructed to a more resilient standard.”

Today’s announcements take important steps toward increasing resiliency in building codes and standards, and building design.  A new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Building Resilience website connects community planners, homebuilders, architects, and engineers with building science, climate data, and community resilience resources.  In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security will release toolkits in the near term that will provide communities with short- and long-term solutions to enhance resilience and prepare for and adapt to climate change.

The Economic Value of Investing in Resilient Infrastructure

Broadly speaking, we know that the return on the incremental investment in resilience pays off over the life of the building.  In 2005, the National Institute of Building Science conducted a widely-cited study, Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Assess the Future Savings from Mitigation Activities, which examined federal disaster recovery spending over the previous ten-year period and concluded that every $1 spent on hazard mitigation saves society an average of $4.  

Since that study came out, we have invested in helping communities recover from and mitigate the impacts of disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, with an increasing focus on anticipating future conditions. 

As the impacts of climate change accelerate, we need to rapidly assess and integrate the economic benefits of building resiliently, both in the public and private sectors.  That is why today, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it will support the update to the 2005 Mitigation Saves study.  This new study will provide updated analyses on the benefits of hazard mitigation measures, including retrofits for existing buildings, and public-sector hazard mitigation grants, among other topics.

Institutionalizing Resilient Building Codes in Federal Buildings and Housing, Mitigation, and Recovery Programs

Over the past year, the Administration has made significant progress to strengthen the security of Federal buildings and assets and improve their resilience to floods and earthquakes.  Today’s event recognizes that we must continue that progress, and take action to address resilience holistically across the country.  To jumpstart that process, HUD and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have committed to review their existing building construction requirements with the goal to align with the most recent building codes and standards for resilient construction.  These are significant steps that will help ensure that the buildings we construct using taxpayer dollars are built to last the projected lifetime of the building – 50 to 100 years from today.

The Path Forward

The public and private sectors, including codes and standards organizations, have made significant progress to date to incorporate resiliency concepts for the design of buildings and infrastructure.  However, more needs to be done. The commitments announced today help create a path forward for practitioners at all levels of government and across sectors in the code and standard development process to enhance community resilience.