Are we ready for “Better Than Code” design?

By David Bonowitz, S.E.

Two recent developments could help engineers change the way our building codes regulate earthquake risk – and they came sooner than expected.

In February, President Obama updated the Executive Order that sets seismic criteria for buildings owned or leased by the Federal Government. The new policy requires federal agencies to adopt model codes, standards, and upgrade triggers that used to be voluntary. More important, with a shift from “seismic safety” to “earthquake risk management,” the Order recognizes for the first time that to achieve earthquake resilience, “new and existing buildings may need to exceed those codes and standards.” It calls on agencies to consider higher design objectives for their projects.

On March 17, Senator Feinstein cited the new Executive Order in a letter urging NIST and FEMA “to develop a plan to modernize seismic safety building standards that meet a performance objective of post-disaster occupancy.”

In truth, none of these changes would be entirely new. Many federal agencies already use the I-codes, ASCE 41, and the federal recommended practice known as RP-8. And NIST and FEMA, together with practicing engineers and researchers (many in California), have been working on assessment tools and design criteria that address economic and downtime losses the way our current codes think about safety. NIST’s Community Resilience Planning Guide goes even further, setting goals and measuring performance in terms of recovery time for whole communities, not just individual buildings.

But what is new is the endorsement, by elected officials at the highest levels of policy-making, of something we’ve been saying for a long time: We need to do better. Both the White House and our senior Senator are now on record supporting ideas that only a few years ago seemed like political non-starters.

What will this look like for practicing engineers? In time, as current research bears fruit, we can expect building codes and institutional policies to set performance objectives in terms of repair cost and recovery time. Meanwhile, though we don’t have true performance-based codes, we do have design criteria for essential facilities assigned to Risk Category IV. Assuming political support remains strong, we can amend the code to use the Risk Category IV criteria for more buildings. It’s an imperfect and short-term solution, but when the political winds are at your back, you don’t wait.

New buildings alone cannot make old cities resilient. So we can also expect retrofit programs to continue and expand, hopefully in thoughtful ways, to focus on buildings whose recovery has community-wide impacts. Of course there will be questions and details to work out as codes and retrofit programs respond to new policies. SEAOC’s technical committees will certainly be involved.

The new political support for “better than code” performance did not come from nowhere. The proliferation of “resilience”-themed organizations and initiatives certainly raised awareness. More concretely, last year, led by San Francisco’s Chief Resilience Officer Patrick Otellini, the city started refining its earthquake recovery goals, along with the building code changes needed to achieve them (I am a consultant to the project). And at the ATC-SEI conference last December, Lucy Jones, Mayor Garcetti’s advisor on all things seismic, spoke about Los Angeles Building Code changes as practically inevitable. Among others, the efforts of these two cities deserve credit for getting the attention of Senator Feinstein and the White House.

The challenge to engineers used to be to convince our clients to do “better than code” voluntarily. With political support, the new challenge will be to convince stakeholders that public policy mandates are not only a good idea but a necessity. If we do this right, design for recovery will no longer be just a desire, but an expectation.

Display Location: