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Storm driven

New rules requiring sturdier construction of coastal homes may help protect against wind damage - but at a cost

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2008

The cost of building on Massachusetts' south coast these days depends not on which way the wind blows, but how hard.

Builders say stringent state regulations that went into effect Jan. 1 are increasing building costs by as much as 20 percent in many communities, and figures from the head of a state-appointed hurricane task force reflect that view.

The result, say those in the industry, is a chilling effect on an already cool housing construction market.

"The average person would have to be crazy to build on the coast these days," said Dan Gifford, owner of Gifford Coastal Architects in Marion who specializes in designing coastal homes. "It used to cost maybe $250 a square foot to build on the coast; now it's probably $350. What young couple can afford that?"

The state crafted the new regulations based on damage done by powerful hurricanes that slammed into southern coastal towns over the last decade, using wind-load values from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Critics say the rules have no relevance for New England. But proponents say caution is necessary for an area that, with no major hurricane in almost 50 years, may be overdue for one; the last Category 3 to hit Massachusetts was Hurricane Donna in 1960. The 2008 hurricane season starts today.

State officials say the new rules - which require such things as storm-resistant windows or window coverings, and special roof fasteners - bring the state up to the standards of the rest of the country. The goal is to limit damage from wind-borne debris, a major cause of destruction in a big storm.

"We're catching up," said Thomas Riley, code development manager of the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards, which created the new rules.

The increase in construction costs is reflected in an economic model provided by Harold Smith, who represents the construction industry on the state's new Task Force on Hurricane Resistant Construction. Smith chairs the panel.

Building a standard Colonial today within a mile of the coast, in a zone where storm winds could top 110 miles per hour, can cost as much as 20 percent more than before the new rules went into effect, according to the model Smith provided.

Most of the added cost for shoreline construction comes from a requirement to use storm-resistant windows, which can cost 60 percent to 80 percent more than regular windows.

Houses built on the coast typically have an abundance of windows to take advantage of the ocean view, adding to the bottom line.

State officials point out, however, there are cheaper alternatives, such as putting in shutters or having precut plywood sheets on hand to cover the windows. Such alternatives must be approved by the local building inspector.

The cost of framing a house in the high-wind zone increases, too, but far less - only 4.8 percent, according to the model.

The new rules apply only in the 15 communities south of Boston that are in the state-designated high-wind category. It is defined as places in which storm winds could reasonably be expected to hit 110 miles per hour or higher.

Eight of those 15 towns abut the ocean, and along the water, the requirement for special windows applies, along with the other less-expensive requirements, such as additional framing. Those communities include Duxbury, Kingston, Marion, Marshfield, Mattapoisett, Plymouth, Scituate, and Wareham.

In the remaining seven towns, the more expensive windows are not required, but the other requirements remain in effect. Carver, Freetown, Halifax, Lakeville, Middleborough, Pembroke, and Rochester make up that group.

"Lumber yards tell me it will add $4,000 to $5,000 per home [in added fasteners], never mind the window costs," said Paul J. Armstrong, a Marshfield builder for the past 26 years.

Many builders argue that the rules should not be uniformly applied in the high-wind zone because not all homes are at equal risk. For example, those facing away from the water are less vulnerable to damage, they say.

"There's an antique home here built in 1810 with original windows that have been through more hurricanes and storms than you can imagine, and it's fine," said Armstrong.

Responds Riley: Homeowners can appeal to a state building codes board, which can waive the rule on a case-by-case basis.

State officials do not share the view that the new regulations can increase coastal building costs by as much as 20 percent. They say the cheaper alternatives to the more expensive storm-resistant windows, such as shutters, can keep the costs down.

Many builders call the new regulations confusing - and insurance-company driven. "We're paying the price for Katrina and other storms in the south; we're taking the brunt of it," said Armstrong. "Insurance companies have a lot of power to get what they want."

But that is not the view of James Pappas, vice president of underwriting for the Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriting Association, also known as Massachusetts FAIR Plan. The company provides basic property insurance for applicants unable to gain coverage through the voluntary market.

"The state did a good job in defining what area comes in what section of the code," said Pappas.

As for the insurance industry's role in the new rules, he said, "We supported the code, but we didn't lobby for them."

The new regulations are contained in a massive book that leaves many builders and building inspectors scratching their heads. There is also some confusion as to when the new rules took effect; at least three builders interviewed for this story thought the regulations were on hold; they have been the law of the coastal land since Jan. 1.

"It's a new code everyone's trying to adjust to; there's a steep learning curve and everyone's wrestling with it," said Smith, chairman of the Building Codes and Regulations Committee for the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts.

He represents builders on the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards, as well as chairing the Task Force on Hurricane Resistant Construction.

The task force includes state officials, lawmakers, builders, insurance specialists, and concerned citizens - "Not just builders, but everyone involved, from those who promulgate it to inspectors, right on down the line," said Smith.

The state has held many informational forums on the new regulations, at places such as Morse Lumber in Wareham, where store manager Tim Hassell said he's been getting an earful from builders.

"It's costing them $600 for windows that would be $300 otherwise," Hassell said. "And they have to be special-ordered, too."

Regis Lavoie, owner of Summer Street Builders in Mattapoisett, is building a home on Marion's Aucoot Cove.

He called the new rules "not necessarily what's best for the homeowner," and added, "Suppliers, window and fastener companies, they're profiting from the whole thing."

Gifford, the architect from Marion, is in the process of designing a coastal home with 40 windows and six glass doors - one approved under the old regulations last year. He said he hasn't received a single new job since the new rule went into effect.

"The only people it doesn't bother are multimillionaires," Gifford added, "who can afford it."

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at Kandarian@globe.com.

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