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House safety codes debated

It is the insurance industry versus builders associations in tonight's code commission meeting to determine hurricane standards for houses.

The Florida insurance industry has a way to save money for home buyers: Add shutters or shatter-proof glass to make houses more hurricane resistant. The construction industry also has a way of saving money for home buyers: Don't add shutters or shatterproof glass.

Their debate will come to a head today and Tuesday, when the state's Building Code Commission meets in St. Pete Beach.

At issue is the builders' proposal that the planned statewide building code include a national construction standard for wind-resistant design. The standard requires coastal homes to have shutters or shatterproof glass _ or else be designed to withstand much higher wind pressure than is required by current building codes.

But the builders' proposal modifies the national standard, so that it requires the shutters or special glass only in South Florida.

The Florida Insurance Council says that leaves the bulk of Florida's coastline, including virtually all of Pinellas County, vulnerable and it slightly lowers the current level of safety.

"Experts say shutters could have prevented at least 25 percent of the damage in (Hurricane) Andrew," said Do Kim, director of engineering services for the insurance industry's Institute for Business and Home Safety.

South Florida already mandates window protection, but for months Dade and Broward County officials have worried that the planned statewide building code would get rid of South Florida's tougher standards, undoing the reforms enacted after Andrew.

The builders' recommendation was intended to quiet those angry protests.

But other coastal counties would pay the price, Kim said.

"If the state took it upon itself to improve buildings in the state," he said, "that translates into lower damage claims, lower insurance rates and lower property taxes. There's a whole slew of benefits if the government mandates better homes."

Hurricane-force winds exert enormous pressure on a house. If windborne debris, such as tree limbs or roof tiles, shatter a home's windows, the wind gets inside the house and dramatically increases the pressure bearing on it.

That's why the national standard, called ASCE 7, calls for coastal homes to have shutters or laminated glass or be designed to withstand greater wind pressure.

But builders say the window protections jack up the cost of a house.

"In a perfect world, we'd probably all have to have automatic shutters that roll down when the barometric pressure drops so (the insurance industry's) investment would be protected," said Wellington Meffert, director of governmental affairs for the Florida Home Builders Association.

"For five years, the insurance industry has tried to get mandatory window protection into the Standard Building Code . . . but year in and year out, the Southern Building Code Congress International rejected their efforts." The SBCCI created the Standard Building Code, which is now used everywhere in the state, except South Florida.

Meffert said window and door protection adds $5,000 to $10,000 to the cost of a home, depending on how many windows and sliding glass doors it has.

"After Andrew, a lot of people said, "I would pay $5,000 difference for safety features.' But when you get to closing, you've got to have the $5,000," Meffert said.

A $5,000 increase prices some buyers out of the market, the building industry says.

"Certainly the home builders argue that anything that adds to the cost of a home keeps people from buying homes, but (those people) are probably the ones who can least afford to have their homes damaged," said James Rossberg, senior technical manager of the structural engineering institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the group that devised ASCE 7.

The proposal before the state building code commission is deceptive, Rossberg says: It incorporates the ASCE 7 wind construction standard, but guts that standard outside South Florida.

"It's like buying a Volvo because it has the reputation and science . . . to make the car safe," said Kim, the insurance institute engineer.

"But while they're selling a Volvo, they've taken out the air bags and the side impact bars and the antilock brakes. Are you still getting a Volvo?"