Weather Changes and Code Changes

Comparing Ontario and Florida’s building code development shows two very different ways to create and upgrade codes that guide the construction of thousands of dwellings.

Building codes are changing, with a movement afoot to harmonize codes across Canada. With the stage being set for change, this is a good time to review the Ontario system, and for adopting some of the strategies used in Florida to democratize code change.

Why compare building codes in Florida and Ontario, you may ask. After all, Florida is tropical and we are subpolar. They have four months when it’s too hot to breathe and we have four months when it’s too cold to do anything. They have snowbirds and we have snowy owls. They’re the Sunshine State and we are the Great White North. They have more hurricanes and more competent hockey teams. These are two very different regions. So why would we compare them?

There is one key similarity in both jurisdictions: politicians, code officials, insurers and homeowners are very concerned about severe weather. Both places have been on a trajectory towards regulatory change for decades, but Canadians have really only just begun to devote considerable resources to updating the Canadian National Building Code, on which the Ontario Building Code (OBC) is based, to make housing more resilient to severe weather and wildfire.

There are other similarities. Both Florida and Ontario have very complex and mandatory state/province-wide building codes. Both jurisdictions have challenging environmental conditions for construction. Both places took a long time to get their codes to catch up to the weather (though Florida is much further along). Both have building official and trade-related labour shortages. Both have insurers and reinsurers who want the bleeding to stop from weather-related homeowner claims. Then there’s the standard stuff: both Florida and Ontario codes are about keeping occupants safe and standardizing construction so everyone knows how and what to build across local jurisdictions.

Comparing Ontario and Florida is useful because, while it is clear that codes and code change mechanisms are incredibly complex, it is also clear that Florida has a much more efficient and transparent code development process. So while weather affects us all, these comparisons have surprisingly less to do with weather and more to do with regulation and regulatory change at the state/provincial level. 

The Florida Building Code

The defining moment for Florida’s building code was a monster Category 5 storm, Hurricane Andrew, in August of 1992. The extent of the damage from Andrew made it obvious that building regulations in Florida were inadequate, due to a confusing patchwork of codes across the state confounded by sketchy compliance and enforcement. Many insurers realized Florida was seriously underinsured and overexposed to risk. Several insurers went bankrupt and many threatened to pull out of the state. Remaining insurers had no choice but to significantly increase their rates. Andrew created the worst property insurance crisis in U.S. history.

The state government responded by committing to a tougher building code that would result in more resilient houses, and 10 years later, in 2002, the Florida State Legislature and the Florida Building Commission passed the Florida Building Code (FBC) into law. Florida finally had a mandatory state-wide minimum-standard building code to be enforced by local governments (similar to how the building code in Ontario is administered and enforced).

Around 2007 the Florida Building Code Commission merged the FBC with “I-Codes,” a family of codes and code development system created and managed by the International Code Council (ICC). The most recent Florida Code, the Florida Codes 6th Edition (2017) is based on the 2015 version of the I-Codes. As with the OBC, the FBC prioritizes regulations for health and safety of occupants. But it also standardizes building design, construction and compliance, and includes “performance-based provisions” akin to Canada’s objective-based alternative provisions in Parts 3 and 4. The FBC is updated every three years and can be amended yearly with clarifications. Like in Ontario, the online version is free and openly accessible but one has to pay for printed copies of the FBC.

Florida officially adopted I-Codes and, as of the sixth edition updates, the state has assumed responsibility from the ICC for administering and enforcing the state code via state/county/municipal bodies (similar to the relationship between three levels of governance in Canada). Though the Florida code is no longer administered by the ICC, the ICC and Florida work together on regular code updates. However, Florida now reviews the thousand or so changes to the I-Code upgrades every three years and selects only those changes that are pertinent to Florida. For example, Floridians have no use for snow load or earthquake provisions in their codes, just heat and hurricanes.

Upgrading the codes: What distinguishes FBC from OBC?

As mentioned, the Florida code runs on a shorter cycle than do code cycles in Canada (three years versus five years), which means innovations can be implemented more quickly there. But what is really remarkable about the FBC is the technology-assisted access stakeholders have to the state’s code change process. For example, it is required by law in the Sunshine State that all agendas and meeting locations be easily accessible online for all code-related meetings as well as Florida Building Code Commission meeting agendas and minutes and Program Committee agendas and reports. Even emails between Commission members are required to be available for inspection.

Not only can one easily access records of commission meetings, but the state is required to make public all Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) member names and affiliations, meeting schedules, notices, agendas, change proposals and links to live meetings broadcast online. Any member of the public, building industry, government, private sector – essentially anyone – can watch decisions being discussed, voted upon and then posted online.

In Ontario, by contrast, unless one is invited it is difficult to find information about meetings. Those who have submitted code changes are not invited to meetings and it is not obvious how one may follow code change submissions. Proposals are first vetted from within by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH), and then go out for public comments. Then proposals and comments disappear back into the Ministry and TACs. Invited TAC members read through proposals, comments and background documents, travel to Toronto, and sit through long Part 9 (i.e. houses and small buildings) code meetings to deliberate on numerous code change proposals. (Plus, it’s almost impossible to identify who sits on TACs: when I asked some TAC members about who participates, this pesky researcher was told to “ask the Ministry”.)

And then you get a regime change. A new Ontario premier was elected in June, 2018. In November of 2018 there were apparently 510 code change proposals sitting at the Ministry waiting to go to the Ontario Cabinet for final vetting. These proposals had taken years of research and work by public and private stakeholders, and years of long meetings and debate and adjustments. As of late May 2019, there is no clear way for anyone outside of a cloistered process to follow any of the change proposals that were sitting at the MMAH. These changes (and all the effort that went into them) are, according to the MMAH, still “waiting for government direction.”

The argument

Although natural disasters are different in Ontario and Florida, there have been some significant loss events here in just the last few years alone, like the 2013 Ontario floods ($1 billion insured), and the outbreak of seven tornados in Ottawa, Gatineau and surrounding areas area in September 2018 (more than $300 million insured). Ottawa just flooded for the second time in three years, and just suffered another tornado. There is growing consensus that construction codes must change with changing weather.

After a quick review it seems that the Florida model is a faster and more open way to upgrade a building code. With technology and access policies, it seems to attract more input from more diverse stakeholder groups, making it more transparent and equitable. It would appear that the Florida process would also suffer less politics and delay from changes in government. On the surface, at least, it looks like a more efficient democracy.

Given rapidly increasing impacts of weather events, perhaps it is time to rethink stakeholder input, timelines and overall transparency in the Ontario building code change process. Codes are complex regulations that protect homeowners from threats including severe weather. I’m not claiming that Ontario should take the same measures as Florida to protect Ontarians: that would be absurd. But we do have an increasingly pressing impetus to re-examine how we develop the regulations that will get us to more resilient new homes for Canadian families.

Gary Martin is a Research Fellow at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University.



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