There are only two states in Hurricane Alley — the Gulf and Atlantic coastline vulnerable to hurricanes — that don’t have statewide buildings codes. Mississippi is one. Alabama is the other.
Building codes are needed statewide, says Judy Adams, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies in Mississippi.
“Engineers are definitely in favor of statewide building codes,” Adams said. “We don’t profit from it, but our whole motto is protection of public health, safety and welfare. That is what engineers’ main concern is. Building codes plays right into that because they allow for better construction practices. It results in better value for the home owner and for the business owner. Even though it is not fail safe, places that have strong building codes withstand the natural disasters much better.”
Big storms, earthquakes and more
While there is a lot of attention to hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, Adams points out that a large region of the state is on the New Madrid fault zone, which means earthquakes are a possibility.
“We need building codes all over the state, not just the Gulf Coast,” Adams said. “Why should people in North Mississippi not have the same quality construction as the people on the Gulf Coast?”
There would still be differences in code requirements on the Coast. For example, there are stronger codes for buildings in the bottom part of the state that are in high-wind zones.
After Katrina, the Mississippi Legislature mandated the adoption of the International Building Code and the International Residential Code in five coastal counties: Harrison, Hancock, Pearl River, Jackson and Stone counties.
“They did pass a bill last year, so they do have stronger building codes on the Coast,” said Todd Bruce, executive director, Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Mississippi. “Your coastal counties were pretty good about having building codes in place anyway. What the insurance companies would like to see is a statewide building code so they would know what they are insuring.”
Enforcing the codes
But Bruce said while the Legislature can mandate the adoption of building codes, it is up to the local cities and counties to enforce the codes.
“You have building codes and then code enforcement,” Bruce said. “Without the two, you don’t really have anything. But if the Legislature mandated it, that would be good.”
For example, if a building was supposed to have been built to code and insurance companies provided coverage with that expectation, if something happened and it came to light that the building codes were violated, there would be problems.
Bruce said AGC supports statewide building codes even though the building codes don’t affect general contractors that much because most of the buildings they are doing are already built to code.
“Building codes will mainly affect light commercial and residential construction,” Bruce said.
For commercial buildings, the standard code is the International Building Code. For residential structures, it is the International Residential Code.
Marty Milstead, chief executive officer, Homebuilders Association of Mississippi (HBAM), said most areas of the state where there is significant new building have building codes.
“There are numerous cities and some counties throughout the state that have building codes already,” Milstead said. “Most of the areas where building is going on have building codes. The state legislation mandated the five coastal counties adopt building codes. For the rest of the state, the Legislature created a Building Codes Council to serve as guidance for the rest of the state. So the fact they didn’t mandate codes throughout the state doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of cities and some counties that don’t have building codes. They do.”
One of the fastest-growing counties in the state, Lamar County that includes part of Hattiesburg, doesn’t have building codes. This past year, the Lamar County Board of Supervisors voted three to two against adopting building codes.
The Homebuilders Association of Mississippi endorses building codes. But Milstead agrees that without enforcement, the law lacks teeth.
“We see examples all the time of shoddy building being reported,” Milstead said. “The State Board of Contractors meets and deals with these issues. Building codes and enforcement is a way of keeping that to a minimum. Getting more acceptance for building codes is just an educational process.”
Milstead said the homebuilders are exploring some things they can do as an association to help consumers be assured of quality construction. One idea is developing a Web site where HBAM could list builders who have been fined by the Board of Contractors.
“We are also interested in partnering with counties and possibly municipalities to require or at least ask for proof that builders are carrying workers’ comp and general liability,” Milstead said. “When you get a building permit, you would have to show proof of workers’ comp and general liability insurance. We would also like to have builders have their contractor license number posted on the job site. If they don’t have a license number means they are an unlicensed builder, which is illegal. If they do have a license number, then you can check on complaints filed against the contractor.”
The Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) has been lobbying this year for adoption of statewide building codes.
“Absolutely we need statewide building codes,” said Buddy Edens, president of ABC. “It is very important that we have uniform building codes across the state. It gives us a standardized building approach. Our contractors wouldn’t have a lot of confusion about which code applies where.”
Edens said he doesn’t see a lot of general public opposition to statewide codes. Most of the opposition is from the Mississippi Association of Supervisors.
“I guess they feel they have to answer to the people in their districts who don’t want it,” Edens said. “But we have been careful to make sure the building codes wouldn’t apply to agricultural buildings like barns, but mostly commercial and residential buildings, which they should not have a problem with.
“We are going to continue to push for broad applications for a standard building code in the state. It is just very important that people realize and recognize the need for a standard building code across the state. We are still hopeful legislation will be passed this year mandating a standard building code across the state.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.