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Future Forward: Build Better Than the Local Code

Todd Danielson on August 3, 2023 - in Articles, Profile

This particular interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can watch a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/44wGBMo.

Aris Papadopoulos is the founding chair of the Resilience Action Fund and a distinguished expert in resilience at Florida International University.

“A house built to a building code is the weakest house you can legally build,” notes Papadopoulos. “It’s minimum wage, so to speak. In what part of our life do we adhere to the minimum? Not in healthcare, not in education, not in our clothing and other consumer items. Yet in the most-important purchase of our lives, the most-important thing that will protect our family and whatever our household collects, the government essentially puts us at the minimum and doesn’t tell us, ‘It’s only good enough for you to escape, but not good enough to save the asset.’”

This observation—and the fact that he’s a 9/11 World Trade Center survivor—shaped much of Papadopoulos’ work to help create stronger codes and structures. The most important aspect, he believes, is educating consumers so they can demand better and safer places to live.

“Every one of us lives in a house or an apartment or some sort of dwelling,” he says. “For most of us, that home is the most-important purchase of our life, yet we see all the destruction going on primarily in homes, so I wanted to educate consumers.”

Wall of Wind

Papadopoulos has sought to increase awareness of building codes and their deficiencies through a variety of research and outreach. He currently spends some of his time helping the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University, which houses the “Wall of Wind” testing facility near Miami.

Created shortly after the destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the facility has since grown to become a full-scale hurricane testing compound that can test scaled-down buildings, small houses and building components to Category 5 (160-mile-per-hour) winds. It also can add wind-driven rain and recently added a “downburst facility” for wind that’s not horizontal and comes straight down from the sky.

Inside the warehouse facility are 12 electric 700-horsepower fans, meaning the whole setup is 8,400 horsepower. When they’re all turned on, they consume approximately 6 megawatts of power every hour. Most of the testing is done in the morning hours to avoid high electric-load periods.

“We’ve tested roofs, components, windows, doors, garage doors; we’ve tested different ways of assembling walls and so forth to see how strong they can withstand these winds,” explains Papadopoulos. “That knowledge has been recorded and accumulated, and Florida’s building codes have benefited.”

A Fragmented Quilt of Codes

According to Papadopoulos, the building code system in the United States is fragmented and inconsistent. There are no national codes, and most people don’t know that codes are left up to the states. Some states leave codes to individual counties.

“There’s no [code] directory to help [consumers], but we know what survives and what doesn’t survive,” he says.

He cites the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in fall 2022 as an example. Researchers performed reconnaissance visits, collecting data on the buildings. It was very clear that buildings built to higher standards—often built after Hurricane Andrew led to improved codes in 1995—survived, and the homes built earlier to lower standards did not survive. Data coming from this research can help code-modeling organizations such as the International Code Council improve building codes.

“Unfortunately, the states can modify [the codes],” notes Papadopoulos. “I would hope they would make them even stronger, but, in most cases, they’re made weaker. Home builders prefer weaker codes because they end up with cheaper construction and can make a bigger profit.”

He hopes to get the message out to the public that the best thing you can do is have a strong house, and that starts at the site and building stages. According to Papadopoulos, the moment you select a house, the location of that house and the way it was constructed are basically 80 percent of your vulnerability. About 15 percent is the improvements or renovations made later on. Less than 5 percent are the things done in the last few days when a storm is approaching, such as shuttering off windows and filling sandbags.

“The cost of a disaster is much more than you imagine,” he adds. “The investment you make—that extra 5 or even 10 percent upfront to be in a safer home—is probably the best investment you can make in your life. That’s a message we need to get across so consumers ask engineers, architects and builders to go above code.”

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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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