Some of the coverage of the Oklahoma tornado has asked a reasonable question–why is it that, in the middle of tornado alley, houses in Moore weren’t equipped with basements?  This morning’s NPR coverage had probably the most succinct answer.  Scott Neuman, one of their bloggers, talked to local contractors and heard that:

…the contractors are required by building codes to sink the foundation down below the frost line. So in a place like, say, Indiana, when you excavate to go down below the frost line to put a slab in, you’re already halfway there toward a basement.

Whereas in Oklahoma, you don’t have to dig down that far. So the up front costs for a homeowner to put in a basement is actually a little bit higher.

Furthermore, the clay in Oklahoma allegedly tends to hang on to water, making basements leak–in the past.  Waterproofing and sump pumps have gotten better, enough so that one contractor Neuman spoke with admitted that, basically, it’s a bigger hassle than most builders want to go through.  And more than one realtor in news coverage of the region’s aversion to basements points out that the cost associated with them is considerable–making homes with basements less affordable.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but this highlights a point I make all the time when we’re talking about building codes in tech class.  If codes in the area required basements in new construction, then every new house has to absorb the cost.  This  means that, yes, new houses are more expensive, but the ‘base price’ for every new house would go up more or less equally–adding a basement wouldn’t disadvantage one new house over another, because every house would have the cost built in.  Some buyers might prefer cheaper, older houses without basements, but anyone buying a new house would have the protection of the building code.  There’s no real reason that builders in particular ought to be against such a code provision.

The lack of safe rooms in schools is another issue entirely–even if a school district decides not to spend the money on a basement, there’s so much reinforced concrete being poured for floor slabs in a suburban school anyway that additional reinforced concrete walls are, in terms of overall scope, minor costs (compared with, say, artificial turf on football fields…)  If you want to live in a house without a basement and take your chances that’s one level of decision.  But building public buildings without any protection at all seems (again, in hindsight) unfathomable.  Somewhere down the road, a reporter ought to look at meeting minutes from the construction of the school that had no reinforced concrete walls at all and see how this happened.  It’s exactly the sort of thing that is easy to cut during value engineering, especially when there’s political pressure to build schools as cheaply as possible.  And, for most schools, it’s an expense that will never pay itself back.  But in the risk/reward calculation, this seems a classic example of the difference between cost versus value, and in the worst of circumstances, a few walls of reinforced concrete would have been worth an incalculable amount.


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