Leadership spaces in FIU mediate the Nation’s initiative to create safer infrastructure

Chris Perrian outlining the Department of Energy’s progress in the initiative | Paloma Pimentel, PantherNOW

Paloma Pimentel | Contributing Writer

Each year, our world experiences climate-driven threats that intensify over time, such as record-breaking hot temperatures, devastating natural disasters, and rising sea levels. 

Hence, in December 2022, FIU was proud to host the White House announcement event for the National Initiative to Advance Building Codes (NIABC) in D.C. 

This meeting announced the efforts that are underway to help communities around the nation adopt the latest modern consensus-building and energy codes and standards, improve climate resilience, create jobs, and reduce energy costs. 

On Sept. 7, almost a year later, the many agency partners that attended last year’s announcement event reconvened at FIU’s office in D.C. for a solutions-focused dialogue discussing the initiatives’ progress, takeaways that informed policymakers and conversations for a more resilient future. 

The active conversations sparked a deeper discourse, where participants were encouraged to use the gooseneck microphone on their pod to ask questions and suggest solutions. 

This year, the Biden Administration announced the release of $90 million in funds to support the resilient and efficient building energy codes initiative. 

“As we all know, building codes save lives, and why not invest in this critical effort at a time when so many communities around the nation are reeling from disasters such as fires and floods and the amount of Financial and social costs to the nation and these communities is way exceeding our ability to keep up with this,” says Lori Showman, a White House Representative.

“We need to make sure that we’re advancing building codes because we know that building codes work, and we want to thank the Build Strong Coalition for convening all of you, and we’re depending on all of you today to come forward with the ideas that we need to advance this critical effort.”

Acting Deputy Administrator at FEMA for FEMA Resilience programs, Victoria Salinas, explains that resilience programs like the building codes initiative are essential for communities and systems to prepare for anticipated hazards, adapt to changing conditions, and withstand and recover rapidly from environmental disruptions. 

She adds that these solution programs that help communities across the nation adapt and recover from natural disasters and climate change threats require a deep understanding of the chronic stresses that people face every day so that they can recover efficiently. 

Salinas eagerly shares how there is an 11 to 1 return on building code investments. She is also quick to note how adoption rates won’t increase without incentives that drive behavior change and the many local and regional partnerships needed to reach 50 percent of adoption rates in the coming years. 

This task force, comprised of 15 federal agencies and state-local tribal territorial partners working together to develop specific agency plans such as modernizing building and energy codes to reduce energy costs and focusing on prioritizing underserved communities, proposes the main question of: How can we think about incentives, motivators, and drivers for communities to implement building and energy code compliance?

Discussions between pods | Paloma Pimentel, PantherNOW

The progress of last year’s goals were outlined as:

  • Conducted a landscape analysis of resources that currently exist that found over 120 funding programs and over 500 billion dollars in funds that can be leveraged for this national initiative 
  • The White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and Climate Policy office has been working with many different agencies and partners to leverage these federal funds
  • Newfound statistics on building codes discovered that only 27 percent of local jurisdictions are in compliance, where the goal is to reach 50 percent in the coming years
  • FEMA established its own building code strategy that outlined ways the agency could accomplish more
  • Hiring actions on board to recruit building code specialists for technical assistance that will work with State, local, and tribal territorial Partners in each of the ten U.S. regions for code adoption and enforcement
  • Scientists at FIU and other universities are simulating the turbulent airflow of category-five hurricanes for wind engineering data on infrastructure
  • Establishing partnerships with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety to share and coordinate resources that push for code adoption

Description of goals and solutions: 

  • Create behavioral science initiative programs to inform and drive public opinion in adopting building and energy codes
  • Incentivize the public to use funds in existing federal programs such as Brick or HMGP, for building code compliance, these programs also fund retrofits to keep buildings safe from flooding and seismic retrofits for earthquakes. 
  • Make retrofitting easy and affordable while utilizing the latest technologies so that people can take action to reduce human suffering due to disasters and climate-driven events.
  • Focus on areas to fund new construction, rebuilding, or rehabilitation of homes
  • The Department of Energy promulgates Federal building rules such as the Clean Energy rule in decarbonizing and creating energy-efficient buildings in an effort to lead by example 
  • Create a resilient nation with superior building performance 

The Director of Planning and Safety in building sciences within FEMA’s resilience organization, Edward Laatsch, described some of the challenges that federal agencies involved in the program discussed for year two are interagency collaboration, communication, building codes, standards, expertise, data, and research needs. These are all potential areas of additional work to meet the goals mentioned above. 

Chris Perrian, an energy codes programmer at the Department of Energy, shared how people assume energy codes are for energy efficiency and decarbonization. 

He hopes that people can understand that there is also a value proposition for resilience in codes, such as in health and safety, passive survivability, and property damage in the face of natural disasters. Perrian would also add how the research conducted by ICC and other institutions is posted on their website and will help contribute to the perception change needed. 

He is also quick to add how, in states like Florida, insurance companies are pulling out of the state because there is no updated code and enforcement systems. 

In addition, he explained how there needs to be a way to communicate the benefits of updated codes with conservative states like Florida that, more often than not, are unwilling to hear about decarbonization or energy efficiency. 

In the midst of outlining the progress, challenges, and possible solutions for this initiative, the panel reached a moment of clarity that emphasizes how you cannot talk to Americans about codes because it is too complex. 

Instead, the behavioral approach to get the public interested would be to have a conversation about what they can do, that someone else will pay for, to help make their house a little safer for their loved ones. 

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