AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s approach to building safety may not cut it, according to top building experts, whose recommendations carry enormous weight.
Three weeks after KXAN investigated the city’s “reactive” approach to apartment inspections, investigative reporter Matt Grant spoke with the CEO of the International Code Council to see if Texas is doing enough to keep you safe. The ICC is the worldwide leader in setting building codes and standards.
“I think a proactive inspection regime is a good idea,” said ICC CEO Dominic Sims. “There is, I think, mounting evidence that periodic inspections of existing buildings are a good idea to protect health and safety.”
Austin takes the opposite approach.
For the past decade, Austin Code Department has summed up its approach to safety inspections in one word: “reactive.”
“We rely on people to call in violations,” an official said in 2012. “Or, things happen, and we respond.”
“We currently are reactive,” Austin Code Department supervisor Matthew Noriega told KXAN three weeks ago. “So, that’s how we address the issues.”
In the wake of the Miami-area condo collapse in June that killed 98 people, a coalition of building experts met in Florida last week to discuss ways to prevent another disaster.
The panel members included the ICC, the Building Owners and Managers Association International and the National Institute of Building Sciences, along with representatives from nonprofit, academic and private organizations, as well as experts on code enforcement, construction, design and real estate.
A KXAN investigation previously found Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Plano put the responsibility on residents to find and identify structural safety issues then notify the city.
Other cities are more proactive, KXAN found. Arlington inspects residential properties annually. Dallas does it every three years. Houston — which specifically checks to see if buildings are at “a significant risk of structural failure” — checks every four years.
Proactive inspections ‘absolutely critical’
KXAN asked the ICC if Austin should rethink its reactive approach.
“There was, I think, general agreement there should be some periodic re-inspection of existing buildings,” said Sims.
He says a proactive approach to inspections is “absolutely” the right way to go.
“I think they’re critical,” he said.
How often those critical inspections should be done is still up for debate. The ICC says cities need to balance cost and resources with a safety-risk analysis. Buildings in high-risk areas – those prone to earthquakes or wind damage, for example – or of high importance, like hospitals and nursing homes, should get top priority over an average apartment complex, Sims said.
“A building in Austin, Texas is a fairly stable environment,” said Sims. “So, a periodic inspection there might be further out.”
“The type of building, the occupancy, the critical nature of a building and the age of it all need to be looked at in terms of how frequently you re-inspect an existing building,” he said. “So, it’s not a one-size-fits-all in terms of re-inspecting existing buildings.”
A recent report by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety looked at how Texas compares to other states at high risk for hurricanes. The report compared 18 coastal states and found Texas to be among the worst for not having a statewide building code or uniformly protected by high wind design standards.
The nonprofit recommends Texas adopt and enforce mandatory statewide standards.
Miami requires aging buildings be given the all-clear by an engineer after 40 years. Sims says that may be too long to wait. Experts are considering recommending that be cut in half to 20 years. A range of 20-40 years is still being discussed.
“Verifying that a building is safe is more critical the older a building gets,” said Sims.
Austin has no such requirements.
Councilmember Kathy Tovo wants to change that. Tovo previously proposed the city enact proactive periodic inspections, an idea that was shot down. She plans to bring the issue up again at a future council meeting, based on information brought to light by KXAN.
“I’m looking forward to engaging my colleagues in just that discussion,” Tovo told KXAN three weeks ago.
The ICC plans to issue formal recommendations in “the next several weeks.” That will include adding “some periodic inspection requirements” to the International Property Maintenance Code, Sims said, referring to the voluntary guide of minimum building safety standards that Austin has adopted.
The purpose of the meeting of building experts in Florida was not to discuss what may have caused the condo collapse but rather how to prevent another disaster in the future, Sims said.
“Regardless of the causation of the Surfside [Fla.] collapse,” he said, “taking a periodic look at existing buildings to make sure they remain safe is a very, very good idea.”
An undisclosed number of cities across the US, including “cities across Texas,” are paying attention to what the ICC will recommend, Sims said.
“Following the building collapse in Surfside, the Code Council has received inquiries from across the country, including Texas, regarding concerns about existing building inspections and maintenance,” said Sims, “as well as interest in our panel discussion,” which was held on Aug. 17.
Austin Code ‘in conversation’ over issue
KXAN reached out to Austin city council members, including Tovo, and the city’s Building Official about the ICC’s recent remarks but did not immediately hear back.
Officials with Austin Code Department tell KXAN they are now “in conversations with the City’s Fire Marshal and Building Official regarding this topic.”
A spokesperson said many of these conversations are “exploratory” right now.
“The Austin Code Department prioritizes the health and safety of all residents and has been in conversations with the City’s Fire marshal and Building Official regarding this topic,” said spokesperson Lucero Aréchiga. “Outcomes of these conversations would require approval by City Council and due to the code development cycle, possible changes to the IPMC would not reflect in the published code until the 2027 IPMC edition.”
Policy makers could amend the current code until that time to make a more immediate change.
“Local jurisdictions could make suggested additions as an amendment to their local regulations until it reflects in the published code, so that’s something we may have to discuss with stakeholders and policy makers,” Aréchiga said. “In the interim, Austin Code continues to conduct proactive inspections on all Repeat Offender Properties (ROP) and will inspect any commercial property that have concerns on the structure. Additionally, Austin Code continues to educate residents on identifying potential code violations including visible damage to structures. While we continue to perform as a reactive department, we rely on the cooperation of the general public to remain vigilant and to call Austin 311 to report a potential hazard.”
Sims says the panel meeting in Florida was a “great start” to ongoing discussions over building safety, which is an issue that impacts everyone.
“We spend so much time in buildings, and, in some sense, we just expect them to be safe,” he said. “But buildings are safe for a reason – because we have a design community that complies with codes and standards; we have building inspectors and fire inspectors that check on the construction. And, the component we’re looking at now is, what do we do after a building is built? How frequently should we look at a building to make sure that it’s maintained and remains safe?”