Images of destroyed, damaged, and flooded homes and businesses are all too common in the weeks since Hurricane Ian ravaged the southwest coast of Florida, followed by damage and flooding along the SC coast.
The worst storm damage in those counties came from Ian’s massive storm surge, and the worst destruction was sand dunes washed away, beach access torn up and fishing piers broken or completely destroyed.
Many homes were flooded, with damage to roofs and other components, but thankfully places along the state’s coast like Fort Myers and Sanibel Island in Florida did not see massive, total destruction of homes and businesses.
However, repairs to affected homes will take months, and this latest natural disaster is a reminder to property owners, builders and architects in South Carolina that the state’s volatile climate needs to be on the radar when designing and building. New homes and commercial buildings.
One thing that may satisfy the concerns of many property owners is that structures in the state have been built to meet more stringent regulations over the past 30 years, said Mark Nix, executive director of the Homebuilders Association of South Carolina.
“When you look at storm damage these days, the worst you’ll see is homes built before the 1990s,” Nix said. “Since Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, new codes have been put in place, especially along the coast, and have done a good job of reducing damage and loss.”
Nix said South Carolina officials decided in the 1990s to replace the state’s set of building codes with the Southern Codes. The state now follows building codes set by the International Code Council. These are revised and updated every three years to respond to new building innovations as well as climate conditions and other concerns, and the latest code was adopted on Jan. 1, Nix said.
Those concerned about coastal property should feel good about the results of the insurance institute’s 2021 study that found South Carolina has the third-best set of building codes among coastal states nationwide, Nix said.
Cyclones may be the top disaster on everyone’s radar right now, but this year another potential threat has risen on the minds of Midlands residents – but this one comes from deep underground.
Since December 27, 2021, there have been 47 earthquakes in the Kershaw County cities of Lugoff and Elgin, with the largest of a magnitude 3.6 on June 29, according to the SC Department of Emergency Management. There have also been several earthquakes in the Upstate and Charleston area, but nothing like the activity near Elgin.
State and national geologists have called the unusual earthquakes Elgin’s “earthquake swarm” and say it is normal seismic activity on one of the state’s many fault lines and not related to any human activity such as mining or construction. Still, the aftershocks have scared many local residents and made them wonder how their homes will stand up to larger earthquakes.
Nix said earthquake-resistant measures are already built into existing codes. “We are constantly addressing these concerns,” he said. “The SC Building Code Council studies local and regional maps, and two of the biggest concerns addressed in the code are seismology and high winds.”
Mark Hood, president of Hood Construction in Columbia, has seen the benefits of stricter building codes over the past few decades. “We’re starting to see the long-term effects of years of good building codes and good building construction,” Hood said. “Sometimes when you look at pictures of a hurricane-damaged area, you see three houses completely destroyed and then a few houses standing next to them. They are built with new code. Upgrades over the last 30 years are really helping to save homes. Are they completely eliminating damage? No, but they are preventing houses from exploding and disintegrating in the wind.”
Hood said a few major changes in the way homes are built have made all the difference. More than 30 years ago, for example, most houses were held together with nails. Nowadays entire houses are built together from roof to foundation to maintain the integrity of the whole structure in case of wind.
On the coast, code requires windows to be built to withstand winds of 110 mph or higher, which technically means the window must be able to withstand something like a 2 x 4 being thrown at that wind speed, Hood said. That requirement reduces the amount of broken glass left to clean up when windows are hit by flying debris.
These hurricane-proofing techniques aren’t just applied to coastal counties. “We’re basically taking the same precautions across the state, because in a hurricane zone like South Carolina, the coast can be hit hard, but a big powerful storm is going to affect the entire state,” Hood said. “We saw this with Hugo in 1989 when Sumter, Columbia and places inland as far as Rock Hill and Charlotte were severely damaged.”
Ben Ward, project manager at McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture, which has offices in Columbia, Charleston, Greenville and Spartanburg, said more clients are concerned about building homes that can withstand severe storms and other natural disasters and looking for proactive ways to protect their homes.
“We’re seeing more concern about disasters across the state,” Ward said. “Of course, most of it is on the coast, but that’s changing as we get savvy consumers with an understanding of changing climate patterns and an interest in what can be done to mitigate the resulting disasters.”
Ward said the word “resilience” has become important in the design of new homes and buildings, especially along the coast. “Flexibility has gained a strong importance in South Carolina’s architectural community,” he said. “Many states are more focused on building sustainable structures, but they are states that are not as disaster-prone as South Carolina. Here, we need to combine flexibility with durability. “
Ward said he recommends homeowners consider a series of protocols called Fortified, which is run by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety and offered by many construction contractors. There are three levels of fortified security plans available for both residential and commercial structures.
“We strongly encourage customers to consider options that go above and beyond code,” said Ward. “If you build a house to a fortified standard, you are more prepared for natural disasters. The costs add up, but it’s a minor investment up front, saves on insurance premiums, and can help make a difference sooner after a disaster strikes.”
Ward said the fortified program includes putting additional wood into the walls, building roofs built to higher wind load standards than most building codes and non-combustible exteriors to protect homes from wildfires. He noted that many coastal communities have raised base flood elevation requirements for new buildings to withstand storm and river flooding.
South Carolina has focused more on resilience in construction and infrastructure, Ward said. In 2019, the state established the South Carolina Office of Resilience, which focuses on increasing disaster resilience in communities, reducing or eliminating risks of long-term damage, and mitigating the impact of future disasters.
“As members of the American Institute of Architects, we are assisting that office as requested by the state,” Ward said. “It’s great that they’re focusing on this issue.”
Reach Christina Lee Knauss at 803-753-4327.