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Uniform building codes could save money, homes and lives

Consumers, insurers, and the building industry should all benefit from an effort underway to create uniform building codes across all 50 states. The Insurance Building Code Coalition (IBCC) is leading the initiative. IBCC chairman Keith Lessner says safety is the ultimate goal.

Currently less than half of the 50 states enforce a statewide code for all building types, and several states have no statewide building code at all.

"Our concern is to see that buildings be built to withstand losses better," says Lessner, who is also a vice president for the Alliance of American Insurers, an IBCC member. Lessner adds uniform building codes should save lives, save homes in the event of disaster — and save money in the long run.

IBCC's membership includes insurance, building and building code industry groups, and insurance companies. The group is urging every state to adopt a uniform building code. Currently less than half of the 50 states enforce a statewide code for all building types, and several states have no statewide building code at all.

Illinois is one of the states without a uniform code. Illinois has a wide range of local codes, with requirements and regulations that change from town to town.

"You build to a certain standard then go across the street and the rules change. That's why builders and home contractors are typically in favor of standard codes," says Terrence Leppellere, vice president of member services for Building Officials and Code Administrators International, a member of IBCC.

Safety features at an acceptable cost

"There are clearly ways to design buildings to make them more resistant

"There are clearly ways to design buildings to make them more resistant, not only to natural disasters, but also to other types of problems as well," says Lessner.

According to Lessner, the IBCC is trying to find out what kinds of losses could be remedied by uniform building codes, working to shape model codes, and lobbying states to enact uniform codes to address those losses.

Making homes more resistant to the elements often means making them more expensive both to build and to buy. Lessner admits putting a uniform building code into effect will require additional costs in the short term. Higher costs are something most homeowners don't want.

"One of the most contentious questions we face is how much money you should put into a building [so it will] withstand losses," Lessner says. "There is some right amount of money that consumers should be willing to pay to make their homes safer."

The key in setting code requirements, says Lessner, is to find a socially acceptable level of safety, at an acceptable cost.

"A uniform set of codes is going to lower costs for builders, for construction companies, for architects, and ultimately, for homeowners."

"The benefit to the consumers is that they are going to avoid all the costs associated with the loss of a home, and insurance is only one cost," Lessner says.

As Leppellere explains, a uniform code will also help to lower home building costs in the long run by giving contractors a specific set of building standards for every home they build.

"People are always throwing stones at codes, but a statewide code eliminates changes at the local level that increase costs," Leppellere says.

One state at a time

The IBCC's plan is to take on the issue of building codes one state at a time, starting with those that seem most receptive to the idea, or where a debate is already underway. The group's effort has already seen some success. In Pennsylvania, where IBCC members spoke before the legislature on the need for a state building code, it was approved.

"We added our weight to the debate in New York, " says Lessner. "In Florida, the insurance industry ended up being a major force in urging Florida to adopt a building code that included windstorm protection."

In Missouri, the group's push helped start a governor's advisory panel to investigate and make recommendations on the issue of codes.

In addition, the IBCC looks closely at states where uniform building codes are in place to see if they include the most useful measures to protect buildings from disasters. At the same time, the IBCC wants to work with states that have outdated codes. Most states base building codes on one of three systems: the Uniform building code, the Southern building code, or the National building code. Many states do not rely on the most up-to-date versions of those codes.

"We'd like to see all the states have the most current version of codes," says Lessner. "Then comes the issue of having the codes enforced."

Convincing all 50 states to institute the most current codes, and then to enforce them properly is not something that Lessner expects to happen overnight. "This is a slow, hard process," he says.

A home that lasts

"The greatest beneficiaries over time are homeowners."

As Lessner sees it, people make home safety investments every day. With codes in place, he says, the investment in safety will mean a home that lasts longer, resists damage better, and helps to save lives. Higher initial costs might lead to lower, long-term costs.

"The greatest beneficiaries over time are the homeowners," Lessner says. "Ultimately, this is going to affect the price they pay for home insurance."

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