June 26--Catching up with ever-changing rules intended to prevent earthquake losses, Memphis and Shelby County are expected to adopt stricter building codes this summer that could add thousands of dollars to the cost of new homes.
The County Commission and City Council will be reviewing recommendations to adopt the 2009 International Building Code along with 2012 provisions dealing with structural and seismic requirements. They also are slated to approve the 2012 International Residential Code for home construction.
The commission is likely take up the matter early next month, with council action expected later. If approved, both codes would be in effect by the end of the year.
It is the residential code that would bring the most noticeable effects, particularly with its tougher seismic requirements, said Allen Medlock, administrator of the Office of Construction Code Enforcement and building official for the city and county. Depending on the design and location, home-building costs could rise as much as 20-25 percent, he said.
"We're hoping to make it as palatable as we can for them (home builders), but when you've got rules, you've got to abide by them," Medlock said.
The Memphis area faces an earthquake threat from the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which lies under parts of the Lower Mississippi River Valley and produced a series of monstrous temblors in 1811-12.
The city and county are overdue to adopt new codes because Tennessee law requires construction standards to be no more than seven years old. The current code was published in 2003.
The recommendation for the 2012 residential code and the 2009 IBC, along with updated provisions from this year, came from the Building Code Advisory Board, a panel made up of engineers, architects, home builders, contractors and others.
"We anticipate there will be some increase in cost," said Juan Self, a Memphis architect and chairman of the advisory board. "(But) we believe that this is the best option that we have."
The most salient feature of the new residential code is a requirement for additional shear panels, which brace walls and counteract the lateral stresses of an earthquake. The extra panels will be required especially where brick facades rise at least 10 feet from the ground, Medlock said.
The extent to which home-construction costs will rise depends on many factors -- and is the subject of some disagreement.
Reggie Garner Jr., vice president of Magnolia Homes Inc., builds houses in Collierville, which already has adopted the new codes. He said the shear panels and other requirements have increased his costs only about $1 to $1.50 per square foot, or a total of $4,000 to $6,000 for a 4,000-square-foot home. That's roughly 1 to 1.5 percent of the total home cost, he said, but the percentage increase would be greater on a smaller home.
"One big thing is, it's costing a lot of time," Garner said, referring to the additional inspections needed during construction.
The possibility of any major cost increase is disconcerting to an industry still reeling from the collapse of the housing market five years ago and the subsequent economic downturn.
Don Glays, executive director of the Memphis Area Home Builders Association, said that with the "significant changes" of the new codes, local government could end up forcing buyers out of the market.
"Somewhere in the mix there should be a reasonable amount of safety. But there has to be a consideration for affordability issues," Glays said.
"We don't need any more barriers to affordability. There are enough already."
But Bob Paullus, president of the West Tennessee Chapter of the Tennessee Structural Engineers Association, said engineers can "fine-tune" home designs so that cost increases from the new code are minimized.
"In some cases, new building costs may not increase at all," Paullus said.
In contrast to the potential cost increases facing home builders, the code will have relatively modest effects on construction of commercial buildings, which have been subject to stringent seismic standards for several years.
In fact, Paullus said, the acceleration, or ground-motion, forces for which architects and engineers must accommodate in their designs have been revised downward as a result of new calculations on how much seismic waves from a New Madrid earthquake would dissipate before reaching Memphis.
(c)2012 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
Visit The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) at www.commercialappeal.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services