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Housing Performance Objectives

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Tim McCormick said: Its cheaper for society to build residential
structures that maintain occupancy than pay for all of the assistance
later to help even 5% of them. 

Tim touches on a problem with our codes: failure to provide consistent
seismic performance objectives. I won't try to speak for Frank Lew, but many
building officials regard the minimum seismic performance objective to be
life safety only. So as long as a damaged building hasn't killed anyone even
if its a total economic loss and unoccupiable it meets their interpretation
of the code's intent. So one camp focuses on the "life or limb" clause in
Section 101.2 of the UBC to the exclusion of other clauses. Historically this
has been the primary focus, but arguably many other code provisions go far
beyond life safety. 

Tim appears to be in the other camp that focuses on the "health, property,
and public welfare" clause in Section 101.2. But more importantly, Tim
appears to further clarify his interpretation of the code's intent and
advocates "maintain(ing) occupancy" in dwellings after disasters. The
Life/Limb Camp responds to the Property Protection Camp that the role of
government is limited to ensuring life safety, not the quality of life. 

In effect, the UBC states both objectives, so both camps are satisfied albeit
inconsistently.

Policymakers in California are are generally not aware of this debate. Those
few that are aware of it are reluctant to address this issue for several
reasons: 

1) unwillingness to face the possibility and the inevitable responsibility
that parts of the code may no longer meet the public's expectations, 
2) loss of competitiveness in high-risk disaster-prone areas if design and
construction costs are increased, 
3) the status quo doesn't appear to need fixing so why rock it;
4) earthquakes are a long-term problem and typical political time-frames are
less than two years; 
5) others (i.e. SEAOC and ICC) are responsible for the codes so its their
issue, not nontechnical policymakers. 
6) the insurance crisis in California has reportedly been solved by the
creation of the California Earthquake Authority. 
7) Northridge was a big quake and we recovered from it well,
8) FEMA will bail us out after a big one.

Only major changes in the status quo will cause policymakers to rethink this
issue now. The least that engineers can do is make an effort to counter the
myths in numbers 5 through 8 above. Its curious how engineers spend so much
time worrying about such small increments in total cost that have such large
implications without the benefit of knowing what their clients really want.
For the time being, both Frank and Tim have valid concerns because we haven't
heard the general public's viewpoint. 

Lets hear your comments and suggested ways to address this issue.

Fred Turner