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Ex-FEMA officials concerned about bill blocking building code updates

The proposed rules would mean tighter energy efficiency requirements for new homes and inspections to make sure homes are safe in hurricane-force winds.
David Boraks
The proposed rules would mean tighter energy efficiency requirements for new homes and offices.

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When the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly gets back to work in the next couple of weeks, it's expected to easily override a raft of vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. That includes House Bill 488, a bill backed by the home building industry that would prohibit some updates to state building codes.

Former Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) officials have joined opponents of the bill in raising concerns about the legislature's efforts. Among their worries: North Carolina's failure to adopt an updated building code would penalize North Carolina communities seeking federal funding through FEMA's Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, or BRIC.

Roy Wright
Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety
Roy Wright

"This bill will erode North Carolina's standing as it looks at the mitigation and resilience grants," said Roy Wright, former chief executive of FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program and the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration.

The North Carolina Home Builders Association has pushed the bill to block the governor-appointed state Building Code Council from adopting stricter energy efficiency standards for new homes until 2031. The rules affect things such as windows and doors, insulation and heating and cooling systems. The bill also blocks another new rule that would require home sheathing inspections, to ensure that new houses can withstand hurricane-force winds.

The bill's lead sponsor, Republican Rep. Mark Brody of Union County, who is also a home builder, has told me that the bill would have no effect on FEMA funding for North Carolina.

"My understanding is really very clear: It has no effect whatsoever on FEMA funds," Brody said last month. "That is a typical red-herring argument put over by the environmental lobby."

But guidelines posted on the FEMA website for the BRIC program say the opposite. So does Wright, who once ran those programs.

"By law, the status of building codes must be incorporated in how FEMA scores those projects," Wright said.

Specifically, competitive grant applications from states that do not adopt updated building codes are scored lower than those from states with modern building codes.

North Carolina's current state building code is outdated, with sections dating as far back as 2009. So the Building Code Council spent the past two years drafting new rules, based on 2021 international standards. The energy efficiency standards in part would cut energy use and costs and reduce climate pollution — a key policy goal of Gov. Cooper.

Wright, who lives in Charlotte, is CEO of the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety. He's an advocate for using new technology to make buildings safer and more able to withstand high winds, flooding and other threats.

"As we continue to watch the impact of storms, and their frequency and severity, we're able to meet that alongside with progress on the science — better ways to construct, better ways to put a home together, so it can withstand the kind of forces that Mother Nature pushes our way," Wright said this week.

Wright said he's particularly concerned about the move to block building-sheathing inspections. Sheathing refers to exterior boards and panels that protect and strengthen a building's structure.

"In high wind areas in North Carolina, there's been a process to make sure that those structures, those roofs, can withstand 150 mph winds," Wright said. "I think about it this way: When a car rolls off the assembly (line), we don't just take their word that the brakes work. We want the brakes inspected, right? So why do we not want the roofs, the attachments, the connections to the structures that keep our building intact … why don't we want those to be verified?"

"In time, instead of creating a more resilient a safer North Carolina, we're going to open ourselves up to more vulnerability," he said.

The home builders lobby has argued that the Building Code Council's rules changes will make homes unaffordable for North Carolina buyers. But supporters say the changes will make homes safer. And they cite an analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory showing that the home builders' cost estimates are too high and that homeowners will save money in the long run through lower energy costs.

"Unfortunately, I think this bill really is a step back in time, when storms are coming more often with more intensity. This is a step back into history, as opposed to taking what we know about the science and moving forward," Wright said.

Wright joins former FEMA director Craig Fugate in opposing the bill. Both worry that North Carolina homeowners face increasing risks from more powerful storms and other aspects of climate change.

"One of the most powerful tools we have to protect our homes and businesses from the destructive power of these storms are modern building codes," Fugate wrote in a Charlotte Observer op-ed column.

"Resilient codes can provide up to $32 in savings for every $1 invested through hurricane risk mitigation for homes built along the coast. But unfortunately, North Carolina is falling years behind," he wrote.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.