Homes

Building Up to Code: A Lone House in the Florida Panhandle Highlights That’s No Longer Enough

After Hurricane Michael’s devastation, experts say building codes should be a starting point, not the end goal for home construction.

Along the coast of Mexico Beach, Florida, entire houses are gone. In their place, large slabs of concrete and scattered piles of wood blight the landscape where beachfront properties stood just one week ago, before Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida Panhandle.

But one home that Michael left standing—with only minor external harm and virtually no internal water damage—has many rethinking whether the message to homeowners should be: building codes are just a starting point and not the end goal when it comes to hurricane preparation.

Building for the Big One

When Dr. Lebron Lackey and his uncle, Russell King, built their family's vacation home on the shoreline of the Gulf Coast town, they built it with climate change in mind. "We wanted to build it for the big one," Lackey told the New York Times, alluding to trend of record-breaking destruction caused by recent superstorms, such as Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina.

Their vacation home was fortified many times above the building codes enforced on the Florida Panhandle. The house was built on stilts, with a foundation of poured concrete and steel cables to secure the home’s base. Other essential components—its door, windows, walls and roof—were built to withstand winds of up to 250 mph. That's 93 mph faster than the maximum wind speed of a category 5 hurricane, the highest category on the industry-standard Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

Lackey and King understood that the storms of the future could dwarf the storms of the past, and they wanted to build a home that would last. “I believe the planet’s getting warmer and the storms are getting stronger,” King told the New York Times. “We didn’t used to have storms like this. So people who live on the coast have to be ready for it.” After Hurricane Michael blew through, theirs was the only home on the block without severe damage.

Building up to code is no longer enough

Current building codes for counties in the Florida Panhandle require houses to withstand wind speeds of up to 150 mph. During Hurricane Michael, wind speeds reached as high as 155 mph, just shy of a Category 5 hurricane.

Panhandle codes also call for reinforced roofs, concrete pillars, shatter-proof storm windows and more. But the current codes were only put in place in 2007, meaning any home built to pre-2007 codes was unprepared for Hurricane Michael.

And as evidenced by the wreckage strewn across Mexico Beach, even houses built to code couldn’t withstand the force of Michael. "The thing to remember about building codes is that they are merely the least quality house you are allowed to build," said Welmoed Sisson, a certified home inspector who runs Inspections By Bob, LLC with her husband in Frederick County, Maryland. "Most codes are a product of consensus, not science… As we put it to our clients, 'Code is a foundation to rise from, not a ceiling to aspire to.'"

While common sense cautions against building houses on sand, the allure of ocean views and beachfront verandas continue to attract coastal homeowners to construct vacation homes and rental units in high-risk areas.

The anatomy of a hurricane-fortified home

While Lackey and King didn’t reveal the cost of building a home that withstood the 155 mph wind and lashing rain, which destroyed other area homes, the assumption is that it cost more than the average homeowner could afford. But exceeding regional codes isn’t necessarily out of reach for the rest of us, says Susan Millerick, director of public affairs for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS).

"You can have a very strong home at any price point," she said, citing the example of Habitat for Humanity, which “frequently builds fortified homes on a shoestring budget."

For new constructions, Millerick recommends that builders follow the IBHS's Fortified Gold Standard, which ties the entire house structure together into one secure unit, after the roof, windows, doors and attached structures have been reinforced.

For current structures, you probably won't be able to retrofit the entire home to the Gold Standard all at once. So Millerick recommends a progressive approach. "Say your house is 30 years old and it's time for a new roof. Get a strong roof. Get the strongest roof you can afford because as goes the roof, so goes the house."

She recommends obtaining a sealed roof deck, so that water can't get through the cracks if you lose a few shingles. Next, reinforce the roof's connection to the rest of the home, even if your area's building codes don't call for it. "You want that roof to be as strong as you can get it," she said. "That's not a place to save money."

Then, over the next few years, save up money to make additional improvements, such as wind-rated windows and doors.

"Every step you take makes your home stronger, and many steps that lower the risk for your home are affordable," Millerick said. "You don't have to build a concrete fortress in order to have a stronger home that can stand up."

The cost of going above and beyond code

So how much will it cost to retrofit your house to exceed regional building codes? That depends on how good your region's building codes are in the first place, as well as the cost of labor and materials in your area. "In Florida, for example, the difference between a fortified roof and a code roof is not going to be a big cost. Pennies on the dollar," Millerick said. In areas with weaker codes, the difference in cost may be greater, but she estimates that for most homeowners carrying out renovations, it should cost just 3% to 10% more to exceed building codes.

When getting quotes from contractors, ask them to give you a price for to-code work and renovations that exceed the codes. In some cases, the difference in cost might be negligible. "Usually, if you want more nails per shingle or you them to tape your roof's joints, they will," Millerick said. "Most of them aren't going to lose a roof job over a little extra labor."

How much can you save?

It's impossible to say exactly how much fortifying your home will save you over the long run, but a 2017 report by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that for every dollar spent on hazard mitigation, $6 could be saved in future disaster costs.

Exceeding your building codes will probably also increase the resale value of your home. "There are roughly 7,000 IBHS Fortified homes in Alabama, and they are appraised at approximately 7% higher than their non-fortified but otherwise equivalent counterparts," Millerick said.

An added bonus: if you contact your homeowners insurance company and tell them that you've reinforced your roof or installed wind-rated doors and windows, you'll often be offered a 5% to 15% discount on your annual premiums, according to Michael Barry of the Insurance Information Institute.

It could take more than a year before survivors of Hurricane Michael have fully restored their homes. While King and Lackey’s home suffered some cosmetic damage, it withstood the brunt of Michael’s destruction, with King estimating it will take about a month to clean up the damage. “But other folks, I don’t know,” he said. “Look at what these people suffered.”

Daniel Caughill

Daniel is a Staff Writer at ValuePenguin, covering insurance, retirement and other personal finance topics. He previously wrote about compliance and best practices for K-12 school districts at Frontline Education.