There has been an increase in severity and frequency of climate hazards across the globe in the form of extreme hurricanes, flash flooding and wildfires. While we can’t stop natural disasters from happening, we can improve our resiliency efforts, so communities better withstand them.

And there’s one place where community leaders can start: updating building codes. 

According to Dr. Kelly Hereid, climate scientist and director of catastrophe R&D at Liberty Mutual, updating building codes is like the fiber cereal of climate resiliency – unattractive and boring, but an accessible way to address issues. 

Speaking at a co-hosted BuildStrong America and Liberty Mutual Climate Transition Center webinar on FEMA’s BRIC program, Dr. Hereid acknowledged the many issues communities are grappling with – from decades old infrastructure to changing weather patterns. According to FEMA, as of November 2020, only 35% of counties, cities and towns across the country have adopted the latest building codes, making millions of Americans vulnerable to higher energy costs and extreme weather.

By updating building codes, communities can be reassured that any new construction or retrofits can last the test of time and shifting climates.

“Updating building codes can help us from a climate-related disaster standpoint by helping us make sure climate-related impacts aren’t getting worse,” Dr. Hereid said. 

Small Ways to Update Your Home Without Breaking the Bank

Dr. Hereid helped dispel the myth that resilient measures have to be costly for both homeowners or communities. She pointed out there are simple and inexpensive things for homeowners to do to cut their risk as more climate hazards arise. By adopting these building code changes, homeowners can save $11 per dollar invested, making homes resilient and cost effective.

One natural disaster that has become an emerging area due to its recent change in risk is wildfires. For those who live in wildfire-prone states, Dr. Hereid suggested it can be easy as clearing out vegetation and debris around the house, not storing firewood next to the home exterior and putting screens on attic vents to reduce the likelihood of significant damage. 

We are already seeing how effective updates are to communities in the western U.S. In Superior, CO, a community withstood wildfire damage during the Marshall Fire after updating to fire resistant building codes. According to the article, the fire-resistant material used was not that much more expensive than traditional materials. 

In areas that experience wind-related natural disasters, low-cost reinforcements can be the difference between a house having a roof and not - which can determine the amount of water damage to the rest of the house. Dr. Hereid emphasized the importance of making sure your roof was in good shape and suggested things as simple as sealing the roof deck or installing more sets of nails. 

In the Florida panhandle, during Hurricane Michael in 2018, a group of homes built by Habitat for Humanity were minimally damaged after sustaining high power winds due to updated roofing. By following more resiliency building practices, Habitat for Humanity was able to help build affordable housing and protect families from future climate disasters. 

Similarly, according to Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) 2024 Rating the States, a report on building code adoption and enforcement in states vulnerable to hurricanes, Florida’s system of building code enforcement saved between $1 billion and $3 billion in structural damage during Hurricane Ian in 2022. 

More resilient homes mean more resilient communities

Updating building codes can also help boost the local economy and job market as more electricians are needed as buildings become electrified, making it one of the best climate adaptation jobs. These individuals can help support the installation of building mechanicals like electrical and HVAC.

“You are putting jobs into those communities and protecting them for the long haul,” Dr. Hereid said.

Developers see the value of constructing more resilient properties as a boost for their business reputation. By investing in the upfront costs for more resiliency building practices, developers are able to sell their houses for more by marketing the resiliency as an investment protection to future homebuyers or investors.

Communities also benefit financially from updating building codes by protecting their property tax bases. If property values decline as climate-related hazards increase, the property tax base is at risk, which communities depend on for services like schools and firefighters, as well as infrastructure upgrades to protect against those climate hazards. Future flood risk alone may already be making homes overvalued by as much as $237 billion. By investing in protecting the property tax base, the community protects itself going forward and can invest in future resilience practices, so citizens feel safe and secure.  

“We can’t prevent every climate-related hazard or disaster, but there are material things we can do today to not only reduce the risks of today but reduce our risks for years to come for the climate change we know is coming,” Dr. Hereid said. 

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