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Last updateSat, 19 Oct 2019 12am







    Friday, October 18, 2019-10:44:07A.M.






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Contractor: NMI should comply with building code

DEPENDING on the source, Typhoon Yutu destroyed or caused serious damage to anywhere between 500 and just under 1,000 homes in the CNMI.

According to Saipan-based general contractor, construction consultant and foreman Ivan Medlin, “All of it could have been avoided, and the question might be raised whether or not it’s going to happen next time.”

When Medlin first arrived on Saipan, he was accustomed to leading construction projects in Los Alamos County, a tiny and affluent municipality in New Mexico that Medlin said was disproportionally populated with “millionaires and PhD scientists.” He said the county was “a very rule-driven, inspection-driven environment,” and when he moved to Saipan, he was shocked by the contrast.

“Normally in the states, municipalities have building inspectors, code inspectors that come to your building site as you’re doing it, just checking physical compliance with the actual written code to ensure that it’s not a public safety hazard,” he explained. He said that here in the CNMI, “there’s no inspection and there’s no enforcement — there’s no oversight.”

The Department of Public Works’ Building Safety Code Division has been tasked with enforcing the 2009 International Building Code or IBC since the passage of CNMI Administrative Code, Title 155-10.1, which defines unsafe structures and what should be done about them:

“For the purposes of this law, unsafe buildings are all buildings and structures and/or equipment thereof which are structurally unsafe, or which are unsanitary, or which are unfit for human habitation, are not provided with adequate means of egress, or which constitute a fire hazard, and electrically unsafe, or are otherwise dangerous to public health, safety, or welfare….

“All unsafe buildings and structures are hereby declared to be illegal, and shall be repaired, vacated, or demolished, in accordance with the procedure established by the regulations of this subchapter.”

155-10.1 also incorporates the 2009 IBC’s typhoon safety standards, which are designated depending on the projected wind speed:

“…the minimum design strength of every building and structure and every portion thereof to which the Building Safety Code applies shall be designed and constructed to withstand the minimum horizontal and uplift pressure of wind velocity of at least 175 miles per hour.”

But Medlin remains skeptical as to whether builders in the CNMI are actually compelled to follow any codes whatsoever.

“You see these houses with rafters spaced every four feet,” he said. “Typhoon code says, they need to be spaced every 16 inches.”

He added that tin roofs need to be nailed and screwed down to rafters.

“Screws won’t pull, but they’ll sheer. Nails won’t sheer, but they’ll pull. You need both.”

Click to enlarge
After Typhoon Yutu, Ivan Medlin’s San Antonio treehouse stands surrounded by debris and tin roofing.  Photo by Sophia Perez

He said that he built a treehouse in San Antonio that was in compliance with the 2015 IBC and “everything around it is destroyed; there’s no metal roof anywhere in the neighborhood that’s undamaged — except this treehouse.”

He says the treehouse survived “because we built it to code. We actually built it above code.”

All in all, Medlin estimated that a typhoon-resistant home requires three- to four-times the amount of material, and two- to three-times the amount of labor.

According to Press Secretary Kevin Bautista, and Matt Deleon Guerrero, advisor to the governor and board member of Commonwealth Advocates for Recovery Efforts or CARE, typhoon-resistant building codes may be unrealistic for homeowners and businesses in the CNMI.

“The government has laws and regulations that it needs to follow, and of course we do our very best to make sure there’s proper enforcement and proper compliance,” said Bautista. “But you can’t force anyone to build something that they can’t afford to. They don’t have the economic resources.”

Bautista says that ensuring resilient housing in the CNMI is an “economic and cultural issue” stemming from a lack of labor and a lack of resources on island. He believes that furthering the CNMI’s economic development is the only sustainable way to ensure that people are capable of building resilient structures “on the basic standpoint of providing more economic opportunity for our residents, making sure they’re able to get a job, they’re able to be self-sufficient, and they’re able to properly have the resources to make resilient homes.”

“We want every single structure to be in compliance,” he continued, “but the most important thing for us is that in a community as small as this, there is collaboration between the government, the private sector, and the non-profit organizations — which we’ve been able to foster much more than ever before in CNMI history — to get people out of the mindset that tin roofs are enough. We want them to say, ‘I can start saving up a little more money to get my house up to code.’”

Matt Deleon Guerrero agrees that economic limitations constitute one of many factors contributing to the unsafe housing issue in the CNMI.

“It’s simply cheaper to build tin roof houses than it is to construct a fully concrete structure,” he said.

“Housing is more of a symptom of other issues, rather than a cause in and of itself,” he continued. “It’s hard to look at a house as it is now or as it was before it was destroyed in the disaster and try to make a determination as to blame… It’s a factor of issues over a number of years — there are houses that were built during austerity times when incomes across the board were lower and economic activity across the board was lower, there are houses that were built after the imposition of immigration law which made it more difficult for individuals who fell off legal status to find ways to make income in order to afford to make a stable structure.”

He listed other contributing issues, including an absence of laws laying out tenant-landlord rights, a lack of public transportation (limiting CNMI residents’ ability to commute to work), and pervasive health issues that drain the CNMI’s economy and make it harder for residents to work.

He said that the question of how to build stronger houses brings up another question:

“How do we continue to increase the personal resources of everyone who lives here, so they can afford sustainable housing?”

But Medlin remains skeptical.

“Building to code is going to give you the full lifespan of the material whereas not building to code is going to give you six months until the next storm blows it over,” he insisted. “When you look at [building typhoon-resilient housing] from the standpoint of potentially rebuilding every year, how is it cost-prohibitive at all? It’s cost-prohibitive not to.”