Tornadoes Uncover Substandard Construction Practices—Again

        I can’t believe the news today
        Oh, I can’t close my eyes
        And make it go away
        How long…
        How long must we sing this song
        How long, how long…

        — U2

The North Texas tornadoes of 26 December, as tornadoes so often have, revealed bad building practices (regardless of codes) and stirred up a long-simmering cauldron in me regarding simple prevention. As with past events, such as numerous tornadoes and Hurricane Andrew, they literally blew the covers off of previously hidden construction flaws and corner-cutting in a lot of structures.

Once a house, office, factory or school is built, there’s no way to know its internal mechanical composition short of doing what tornadoes do—tear off the roof and walls. Buyers of used houses and buildings either have to take somebody’s word for it, or live with the uncertainty. Then this happens:

Photo by Roger Edwards (Spencer SD, 1998)

…or this:

Photo courtesy Tim Marshall (Garland TX, 2015), used by permission

…or this:

Photo courtesy Carson Eads (Ellis County TX, 2015), used by permission

The top photo, scanned from a 1998 damage slide, shows a houses blown off-slab…yet still intact! Tim calls these “sliders“…and not the kind you buy in a bag of six at White Castle either. The house simply sat on the foundation and wasn’t attached at all. Absolutely inexcusable!

The middle photo from Garland shows a cheap-ass, rusty cut nail being used to “attach” a bottom plate to the foundation. That is illegal in many areas. Why? Easy: Do you see the bottom plate? It went airborne with the walls of the house because it offered no resistance to the winds’ upward force on the structure, slipping the wood right past the nail. Lazy and negligent!

That bottom photo shows a wall in Ellis County (top picture) that wasn’t even attached to the rest of the school in any way. It simply fell over in weak-tornado winds. I probably could have pulled it down with a pickup truck and a tow chain. It was only a five-year-old school building too. No building code known dictates that exterior walls be held up with gravity alone. Pathetic! Fortunately this tornado happened at night and on a weekend, with nobody inside. Does your community’s kids’ safety matter enough to demand better of a school builder?

Does your own personal safety, and that of your future home’s other occupants, matter enough to demand better of your builder? Buyers of homes yet to be built, by in large, just don’t care to ask about wind reinforcements like straps and anchor bolts with nuts and washers. [This comes from my builder.] It’s all about decorative artifices like fashionable counter tops and the latest styles of tiles. Same goes for most commercial builders and local governments, including school boards. Tornadoes? Happens to others, not “me”.

For the cost saved in ordering “ordinary” counter tops, carpet or tiles, those reinforcements can be built in. In 2001-2 I had a fixed home-construction budget and sacrificed more “prestigious” carpet, tiles, counters and other ornamentals for three things:
* Dozens of anchor bolts at slab pour (with nuts/washers to go on later);
* Metal straps for wall connections to floor and roof, with larger straps and tighter intervals over the garage;
* Multiple metal lightning-protection points for the rooftop and grounding cables for them.

Experience surveying damage (and gathering bits of advice from Tim Marshall, a longtime friend, over prior years) helped a lot. Roll forward to 12 Jun 2009: an EF1-rated tornado passed right over my house, busting trees on all four sides. The house? Unscathed.

Violent (EF4-5) path segments that comprise the rarefied, low (less than 1%) upper echelon of tornado damage areas get the most attention because they contain news-friendly, war-zone-level destruction. Yet the overwhelming majority of all tornado-path areas combined (including the bulk of damage in “violent”tornadoes) is EF0–EF1, a level of wind that is so easy to defend against during construction. However, even EF3 winds can be mitigated by a simple measures, rendering fixable and superficial the damage that otherwise would have totaled it out.

Government regulations are not sufficient. This applies regardless of their apparent rigor. They are neither reliably followed nor enforced. Until both happen, adding more regulations to an already toothless set would be akin to spraying more gold paint on a smelly turd, and about as effective.

For starters, local governments need to do slab, frame and finishing inspections on all homes–not just spec homes, and not just superficial eye visits to save time. Inspection agencies need to make reasonable inspection quotas that don’t invite the temptation for inspectors to hurry, cut corners or look only at spec homes. And governments themselves, such as school boards, need to insist on wind safety, even if a shiny floor or attractive paneling has to be traded off to get that.

Voters need to hold their local elected officials accountable for code development and enforcement. It’s not a sexy issue, and most voters today with their ten-second attention spans and overall low civics educations are about as well-informed as a fence post, so I hold out low hope of this actually happening. Still, even a noisy few hinges can get some attention.

Buyers need to demand wind resistance, individually and en masse, and if need be, sacrifice vanity for safety! If you chose those high-dollar cabinets and counters over hurricane straps and anchor bolts, you have no cause to whine about the damage. Unfortunately the insurance company still may pay…but the hassle of demolishing and rebuilding should mean something. Insurers need to demand wind resistance and documentation of (and offer discounts for) it for their own bottom line as well as the safety of occupants. Simple free-market steps like these can lead to great progress in this area regardless of the level of regulations and building-code enforcement.

How to do it right? For starters:

Photo courtesy Tim Marshall, used by permission

Note the screwed tie and anchor bolt with nut and washer. Repeat all the way around…then do similar for wall-to-roof in terms of ties. There’s more to it, but not much more.

Builders need to proactively offer safety enhancements to customers, including commercial and educational ones, and be up-front and honest about the extra amount it costs. Customers need to be willing to spend that amount, or else sacrifice elsewhere. Marketing-savvy builders who readily construct homes this way (and who offer to contract-install shelters and safe rooms for only minimal markup as a selling point) can advertise their wind-resistance and safety as a competitive advantage. It’s not mandatory, but at least it’s offered and advertised. That will drive up awareness and demand, which will in turn drive up supply, and so on. It has to start sometime somewhere; why not now and here?


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