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Construction standards in an era of increasing natural disasters: FIU leads the conversation
From left, Natalie Enclade, executive director of the BuildStrong Coalition; Chris Perry, Department of Energy; Edward M. Laatsch, Federal Emergency Management Administration; Kristin Fontenot, Department of Housing and Urban Development (photo by Hawah Ezell)

Construction standards in an era of increasing natural disasters: FIU leads the conversation

Americans rely on state and local governments to set building codes that keep us safe. What happens when such standards lag or are not adopted? FIU convened the experts in Washington.

September 8, 2023 at 4:20pm

by Kyomi Cabral

FIU is steering the nation's infrastructure agenda through critical research and advocacy. On Thursday, government officials, students and faculty experts gathered to discuss a national problem: the country's outdated building codes.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology defines building codes as laws that set minimum requirements for how aspects of residential and commercial buildings - among them structural systems, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and natural gas systems - should be designed and constructed to keep occupants safe.

Last year, White House officials announced the National Initiative to Advance Building Codes at FIU. The effort is geared toward making communities more resilient to the growing threat of extreme weather events by encouraging the adoption of modern building codes. This week, FIU, in partnership with the BuildStrong Coalition, convened government officials, research experts and other stakeholders at FIU in Washington, D.C., for a roundtable policy discussion to reflect on the progress made since the initiative’s launch and identify lessons learned to support future progress.

According to a report released by the FEMA in 2022, approximately two out of every three communities in the United States have not adopted the latest building codes, making them vulnerable to climate impacts as well as higher energy costs. Making the case for greater adoption of such codes: the $78.5 billion price tag for damage in the United States caused by tropical storms and hurricanes in 2021 alone.

Among those with a deep understanding of the potentially life-threatening consequences of natural disasters is Arindam Gan Chowdhury, a professor of natural hazards engineering and director of FIU's National Science Foundation-supported Wall of Wind (WOW), the largest hurricane simulator of its kind on a university campus. The 16,000-square foot research facility, located at FIU's Engineering Center, has been used for more than a decade to test construction materials, fabricated components and entire structures in support of performance-based design and stricter building codes.

“As U.S. coastal areas are experiencing continued increase in population, the nation is becoming exposed to consequences of natural hazard events, particularly hurricanes,” Chowdhury says. “The risk to the nation’s society and assets is now threatened by increasing hazard exposure and sea level rise due to anthropogenic warming.”

Currently, FIU is leading a multi-university, NSF-funded $12.8 million four-year project to design an even larger, more powerful research lab capable of generating wind speeds of up to 200 miles per hour combined with a water basin to simulate storm surge and wave action.

“The cutting-edge research we are doing at FIU is in response to the pressing needs in communities that need solutions towards climate hazards and improving the quality of life,” Chowdhury says. “Our goal is to build the resilience of communities in vulnerable regions including those that are disadvantaged, particularly in underserved communities. We are working with institutional stakeholders with the vision to enhance codes and standards as well as propose policies that can incentivize constructions to implement additional levels of resilience to hazards.”  

Among the $52.5 million in windstorm-related projects conducted in the past decade by FIU: Chowdhury's development of the aerodynamic mitigation and power system, a series of turbines that can be positioned on rooftops of houses and corners of tall buildings to interrupt the flow of destructive winds and to create wind energy that feeds into a power grid or can be stored in batteries for use during blackouts. Chowdhury is also utilizing the WoW to determine how to make manufactured homes less vulnerable to windstorms.

Joining Chowdhury in a series of panels were representatives from agencies that make up the BuildStrong Coalition, among them FEMA's Edward M. Laatsch, Department of Housing and Urban Development's Kristin Fontenot and Department of Energy's Chris Perry. The panelists reiterated the need to spread awareness of the updated building codes, which they said can only be achieved through collaboration amongst agencies, stakeholders and universities like FIU. 

“I really look forward to working with FIU collaboratively because I think [its work] is such a key piece of affordable and resilient housing,” said Anne Cope, chief engineer from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. “The Department of Housing and Urban Development code is woefully behind the other codes and standards that we have for housing in the United States, so I am very excited to see that FIU has been working on this.”  

The important conversations taking place have inspired FIU students such as Alexandra Howard, a double major in political science and digital communications and media and a current Hamilton Scholar. Howard helped coordinate and host the the meeting as she works towards her policy project, which focuses on environmental resiliency as it pertains to infrastructure and development in South Florida. 

This will help my career as an aspiring political journalist because learning about these topics will help me frame my reporting in the future," she said. “As a Hamilton Scholar, learning from the different stakeholders that are a part of the Buildstrong Coalition will help me shape my policy project.”  


View a video of the livestreamed event.

FIU in Washington, D.C., showcases the impact of FIU research; provides students with engaged academic experiences and internships; and convenes national partners for meaningful conversations across a broad range of issues as it brings the energy of Miami to the nation’s capital.