In Tornado Aftermath, Alabama Moves Ahead with Statewide Code

Alabama, along with next-door neighbor Mississippi, is one of the few states left in the U.S. where building codes are not enforced statewide. But that's about to change; in mid-March, the Alabama Energy and Residential Codes Board voted unanimously to adopt the 2009 International Residential Code and the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code. The new codes take effect on October 1. As Birmingham News editor Bob Blalock observes, the move to a stronger code has gained momentum following last year's devastating tornado strikes across Alabama, which tore through communities large and small (" Bob Blalock: Many good reasons why the state needs a building code .") For state Representative Greg Wren, who sponsored Alabama's 2010 law creating the Codes Board, the codes effort is "real personal," Blalock writes: "The massive tornado that carved Tuscaloosa in half destroyed the home along 15th Street where Wren's daughter, son-in-law and grandson lived. They and Wren's wife, who had gone to Tuscaloosa to baby-sit, rode out the storm at the University of Alabama's Ferguson Center. Wren's son-in-law, who is working on a doctorate, lost three classmates." But the code effort pre-dates last year's killer tornado cells: the original impetus for passing a statewide code was energy efficiency. Upgrading to modern energy codes was a condition the Congress imposed on states to qualify for their share of stimulus money in the 2009 Recovery Act. And Alabama had €” and still has €” a long way to go: writes Blalock, "As Gov. Robert Bentley's Tornado Recovery Action Council noted in its report on the April 27 storms, 60 of Alabama's 67 counties and about 90 percent of its cities have no building code." Under the 2010 law, and following this month's decision by the Codes Board, towns and counties with no existing code will leapfrog many of the municipalities that do enforce a code, but where the code in force is an earlier version. Jason Reid, Regulatory Affairs Director at Home Builders Association of Alabama, explained to Coastal Connection this week: "We wanted a statewide code, but the problem we had is that cities and counties are already authorized by law to develop their own code. So when we started the process, we said, €˜We are all for a statewide code, but the cities and counties that already have their own codes are going to want to keep them.' And they did. So we passed a law that says, okay, if you're in an area that doesn't have a formally locally adopted code as of the implementation date, this is your code.' And they based it on the 2009 IRC." "There really were three parts to the 2010 bill," Reid says. "One was, you'll do a statewide building code; two, you'll pass a statewide energy code that applies to everybody, period, regardless of whether you've adopted a local standard or not. That way we get back into compliance with the Recovery Act requirements. And then the other portion was that it restricted communities from being able to mandate residential fire sprinklers." Reid says the Codes Board decision is still subject to legislative review. But assuming it takes effect on October 1 as planned, he says, "all new structures will be built to the 2009 IRC, unless your city has adopted something else €” which, I think the oldest code in the state right now is the 2003 edition." "Our goal," says Reid, "if the process works as it's supposed to, is: you go through a kind of a trust-building process that shows, €˜These guys are level headed. They understand the codes.' So if you're, say, the city of Montgomery, and you're looking to update your code, ultimately you'll look and say, €˜Hey €” they got it right.'" As more early-adopting states work the bugs out of the newer editions of the codes, says Reid, Alabama will benefit by having a more polished code that is ready to use right out of the box. Meanwhile, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) is working on education and outreach about the state's new energy code. Here, for instance, is a YouTube video tour of the Alabama Residential Energy Code Field Guide, introduced by Karen Clifton, ADECA's Energy Program Manager.