We don’t always think about it, but the way structures are built play a vital role in our day-to-day lives.
When disasters threaten our homes, offices and communities, the importance of building codes is more evident than ever. If a structure follows modern codes, it is more likely to withstand strong floods, wind and other risks due to natural hazards. These codes help to protect property and save lives.
FEMA employees across the agency work every day to make the buildings in our country safe. These efforts include the creation of the FEMA Building Codes Strategy. Released in April, this document was designed to organize and prioritize the adoption and enforcement of hazard-resistant building codes and standards for FEMA programs.
We sat down for a conversation with five of FEMA experts that helped create this strategy to learn more about the role building codes play in their work - and in their everyday lives.
What role do building codes play in the work you do?
Dr. Pataya Scott: Building codes are a pretty big part of my job in the Earthquake and Wind Programs Branch. One of the things we do with the Building Science Branch is after certain major disasters, we go into the field to assess building performance and see what failed or what was successful and why. We use this information to provide design and construction guidance and best practices for mitigating disasters that people can use to build back better. Based on our findings from the field, FEMA will also propose changes in the codes to help building performance in the future. If these proposals are not successful, we may include the findings in our guidance documents as additional best practices and try again the next building codes cycle which is updated every three years.
Mariam Yousuf EI, CFM, COR, CPESC: My background is in civil engineering, and one thing that I think society may take for granted is that we have clean water, roads that are functional and buildings that are safe for us to inhabit that won’t collapse. Supporting the Building Science Branch provides a unique opportunity to help buildings perform better when they are exposed to natural hazards and to identify ways in which we can help mitigate against that risk. Building Codes and the branch are connected to so many different programs across FEMA. Prior to joining our headquarters in Washington, D.C., I worked in FEMA Region 4 where I managed flood mapping projects through the Cooperating Technical Partners Program in the Southeastern United States. Maps help to identify the areas most at risk to flooding, and my work in the Building Science Branch helps support the ways we determine how to build back better and stronger. One of the best parts of my job is being able to work with so many different stakeholders in and outside the agency and being able to impact how resilient and safe communities are.
Christina Aronson PE SE: I work as a part of FEMA’s National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP.) We take research results and translate it into technical design guidance for private engineers as well as seismic code updates.
Coming from California, I’ve experienced earthquakes my entire life and have seen the way seismic engineering has evolved. After each big earthquake something new is learned. After the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake, the vulnerability of unreinforced masonry, basically brick with little to no rebar, was identified. In this disaster, 120 schools were damaged; 70 were destroyed. People see beautiful historic buildings which in reality are, in my mind, the most vulnerable buildings in an earthquake. As a result, many schools built this way have been replaced or retrofitted per code, but many still remain. Another example is in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, the “gold standard” steel welded connections that had been used since the 1960s did not perform as expected. FEMA funded forensic studies producing guidance publications that resulted in massive changes to building codes and engineering design. FEMA utilizes the best subject matter experts for earthquake engineering and then translates their findings into good guidance. I’m so proud of FEMA for leading seismic design and, specifically, leading the seismic code over the last 40 years.
Sharon Magorien: There’s a lot of things I didn’t realize coming in from outside the scientific community about building codes. One of the things I learned is that many don’t understand or are even aware that their home or their office or the building they spend the majority of their time in, may not be built to the most current building code.
The opportunity to work in building science helped me learn about the importance of hazard resistant building codes in a very short period of time, including their connection to reducing the negative impacts of climate change and how strong building codes can be used to provide equity across the country. My role is to make sure that all the right people come together to take action and that the message is heard.
Larissa Santoro LEED AP: I am in an interesting matrix position in the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, working between the Risk Management Directorate and Hazard Mitigation Assistance Division. In risk management, we are committed to advocating hazard-resistant building codes and working with our partners to promote their importance through education and develop a national strategy. As for hazard mitigation, our approach is different, we engage and connect on a more local level through our dedicated field teams. In the field, we have an opportunity to highlight the importance of building codes and standards directly to grant applicants while promoting resilience practices.
As an architect focusing on disaster recovery, I want to make sure buildings are properly designed and built as resilient as possible. If building codes and standards are outdated, weakened, not required, or not enforced, it is very easy for individuals to ignore implementing them in the construction process. Through a whole community approach, FEMA can help with connecting communities to sharing best practices and techniques to mitigate against future disasters.
Why are your efforts to improve building codes important to the work FEMA does?
Yousuf: A key facet of the Building Code Strategy is integrating building codes into FEMA’s program, components and across the ten regions. It wasn’t always the case that building codes were spoken about often. The ability to help states, local, tribal and territorial governments to be able to adopt or enforce their building codes better will truly make a great impact on the safety and resiliency of the community at large. One of our top priorities is increasing the knowledge first, and foremost, within the agency and then providing that technical support to our partners to be able to implement, adopt and enforce building codes successfully.
Magorien: I’m always struck by the photographs. There are photos before the tornado and then photos taken after the devastation. One of my first deployments to the field was after a horrible line of tornados that just flew across several southeast states a number of years ago. I was in northwest Georgia, and I went into neighborhoods where the only thing that was left was the foundation and three steps into the house that used to be there.
Lives were lost in this disaster. What’s the building code in that community, in that state? Where are the safe rooms? People can survive these things, but those people didn’t. What can I do and what can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen again, to make sure FEMA doesn’t go back again, and people don’t die. Could our agency provide resources they need to build safe rooms? Yes. Do they even know that their home or their school doesn’t have this and that there’s help available if they need it? Making connections - that’s what motivates me. How do we make sure, in our position as public servants, that everyone has access to a safe home, a safe school and a safe place of business?
Scott: Improving building codes is a huge impact that FEMA has had on reducing disaster losses. A lot of the public doesn’t know they need more information on building codes. Even home builders and construction teams don’t realize the impact their construction methods can have on resilience. One of the things we saw after the quad state tornado outbreak in December 2021 was significant deficiencies with anchor bolts, either improperly grouted with plastic bags as filler or completely missing. This is a terrible shortcut. Getting information like that out into the world so homeowners and builders know what to make sure are properly done when getting their house built, I think is really important. And FEMA’s building science publications provide this information.
Aronson: I think most of the public thinks that everything is fine and that every structure they go into is safe and all of it is built to code. I don’t think that they truly understanding that building codes only address life safety and do not provide for the building to be usable after an event. The next big state of the art advancement for building codes is functional recovery, the idea that not only will buildings stand up after an event, but also essential buildings will have the lights on and still be operating. FEMA is on the forefront. We’ve learned from the effects of the pandemic that we need our grocery stores; we need our pharmacies. We need shelters that don’t collapse in an earthquake and actually remain functional. We can protect people that way. There’s a big lift in transitioning people from assuming “I’m always safe,” to what the minimum codes provide right now, and then what we really need to do to survive these constant, changing disasters.
Additional protection doesn’t add all that much cost to build to current code or even beyond these baseline requirements. What works to protect from one hazard may help to satisfy the needs of another hazard if thoughtfully designed. Building codes are developed through a consensus process, which means there’s no single author. Everybody can contribute. There are hearings where you can support or oppose individual changes, and you can work together to reach consensus. There’s no agenda other than keeping people safe.
Santoro: Our vision is to build a resilient nation. FEMA is committed to providing technical assistance, resources and funding to help our partners mitigate against disasters. It is rewarding to me to encourage communities to apply current codes and standards and implement strong resilient measures that save money and reduce pain and suffering for some communities. Some people are not willing to leave their homes after a disaster, and they want to stay in their communities. If their community is not resilient enough and not built to the codes and standards required, it is going to be very challenging to keep the community together.
In the last few years, our teams have incorporated building codes and standards into metrics for various FEMA mitigation grant programs; this is one example of how FEMA encourages building back stronger. It is now up to us to show why consensus-based codes and standards are important so that we can support communities in rebuilding and encouraging resilience.
Building Codes in Action is our series that focuses on building science experts across the agency and the roles they play in making communities safer. Follow along to read more stories from these FEMA experts as they share what makes building codes and standards so important. For more information about building codes, visit our building science pages.