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Building Codes Require New Schools To Include Tornado Shelters, But Many Won't Have Them

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NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW) - Building codes published last year require new schools in North Texas to include tornado shelters, but many new campuses under construction now won't have them. Districts are citing higher construction cost, and they're waiting for cities to adopt the new codes first.

In West, the new secondary campus under construction is one of the few in North Texas adding a shelter that will meet the new codes. During the school day it will be an auxiliary gym. But its 14-inch thick concrete walls, and roof construction similar to a parking garage, is designed to stand up to the 250 mph winds of an EF5 tornado.

"You have to design for about 4 times the wind pressure, and about 5 times the roof live load," said Ben Harris, the director of engineering at Fort Worth firm Huckabee. "That's to account for all the debris that can pile up on top of the roof."

Harris said his firm is working on nine school shelter facilities, including the one in West. In addition to walls and roofs that can resist debris, the International Code Council's standards for storm shelters require that it can hold everyone in the school for hours. A local emergency planning committee also has to be established to decide on design, operation and protocol for activating the shelter.

"There are so many structural requirements, and everyone focuses on those at first but when you really get past the structural requirements you realize there are actually more complex requirements for people," Harris said.

The complexity, and the increased cost, as much as 30 percent higher by a FEMA estimate, is causing some school districts though to wait.

Van ISD is rebuilding schools damaged in a tornado in 2015, but is not including a shelter. The administration would not talk about the decision, but in an email wrote that its insurance plan would only replace the building to current city code.

In Van, the city operates on codes from 2009, which don't include a shelter requirement. Schools only have to build facilities that meet the version of the code adopted by the city where they're building.

The same in true in Frisco, which uses codes from 2012, and where the school district is in the middle of building eight new schools. The district estimated construction costs could go up by more than a half million dollars to include a shelter meeting the new standards, in just one middle school.

"The cost considerations to try and do an entire building or try to go back and retrofit entire schools, the extreme cost was just unbelievable," said Richard Wilkinson, the deputy superintendent for business services.

Looking for a solution, the district has turned to insulated concrete forms for most of the exterior walls of new buildings. Alone, they won't meet the new standard, but will stand up to the 250-mph winds, and can be retrofitted in the future. They also save as much as 20 percent on energy costs now.

"We felt like it met our immediate need, with looking to the future, and within our budget," Wilkinson said."

It's not clear when municipalities will start considering or adopting the new codes. Few have to this point, Harris said. He has started giving presentations to school districts educating them on what's ahead.

The ICC's 2018 codes are expected to expand on shelter requirements already in place.

(©2016 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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