Building Code

Building codes govern standards for construction, maintenance, and usage for development within a locality. Localities are required to enforce the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (USBC), but are expressly allowed to implement stricter standards than those provided by the state.

More stringent ordinances can be required in properties in the 100-year or 500-year floodplain.  Requirements for freeboard, setbacks, and buffers can help accommodate rising sea levels and protect development. Permits for new development can include special conditions, such as impact fees, land use restrictions, conservation, and hard-armoring restrictions.

Norfolk’s Floodplain/Coastal Hazard Overlay District includes a 3 feet freeboard requirement in the floodplain, one of highest in the state. Additionally, any new construction or substantial improvement requires a minimum 20 ft. setback from mean high water.

New Jersey: In its attempt to join the Community Rating System, Sea Isle, NJ, has summoned nearly 200 homeowners to court over noncompliance with FEMA flood vent standards.

Portsmouth, VA Ordinance Sec. 14.1-11(b)(5)

Buildings and structures within the Coastal A Zone shall comply with V zone standards with the lowest supporting member elevated to or above BFE plus 3.0 ft. of freeboard

"The single most common and costly siting mistake made by designers, builders, and owners is failing to consider future erosion and slope stability" 

The need for greater leadership from the state government was echoed throughout our interviews. Localities believe the statewide building code needs to be updated to adequately address the risks of SLR.

One locality has problems installing flood vents as a retrofit, because existing housing stock was not designed for mitigation (incorrect foundation vents & improperly designed crawlspaces).

There was some concern about building height limits proving to be a barrier to adaptation. Localities can consider regulation to remove height limit restrictions.

Ex. In 2012, New York amended the building code to allow mechanical equipment to be placed on rooftops as a permitted obstruction.

  • Permitting process = opportunity to implement adaptive actions with teeth

  • Potentially significant administrative cost
  • Limited reach (only affects development and redevelopment projects)
  • Permitting comes relatively late in the project development process.

The USBC contains many baseline requirements for flood protection. Construction standards, especially along the coast, need to account for increased flooding, wave velocity, wind speed, and coastal erosion. Flood hazard areas require an elevation certification, the use of flood-damage-resistant materials below the design flood elevation, and restrictions on fill. The USBC does not supersede special exceptions, conditional use permits, conditions imposed through cluster development, or local floodplain regulations. More stringent floodplain regulations have the additional benefit of generating CRS credit. Virginia is currently in the midst of a code change cycle, more information is available from DHCD.

For more information on floodplain management, please click here

For more information on freeboard requirements, please click here

For more information on design standards, please click here

The building code is most effective when used in coordination with planning and zoning tools, which can be used to guide development to areas that are not vulnerable to SLR, or to enact more stringent requirements in the areas with the highest risk.

Ex. Virginia Beach restricts fill to 5% in all land disturbances within the SFHA (Va. Beach Floodplain Ordinance 4.10.2.b)

Localities can use building codes to:

  • Site development away from shorelines
  • Mandate setbacks and buffers that anticipate future SLR conditions
  • Discourage development in the tidal floodplain
  • Enact more stringent building standards in the SFHA
  • Require flood resilient construction materials in new/redevelopment
  • Strengthen rebuilding restrictions
  • Provide incentives (density bonuses or fee credit) for low-impact development and green infrastructure
  • Require additional review & approval for shoreline development
    • Ex. Greenwich, CT: Development in the Coastal Overlay Zone requires a Coastal Site Plan, including description of proposed methods to mitigate adverse effects

1: Up to 250 points (Activity 420e, Open Space Incentives (OSI), Manual pg. 420-20):

Credit for requirements or incentives to reserve floodplain portions of new development as open space

2: Up to 25 points (Activity 450, Low Impact Development (LID), pg.  450-8):

Credit for regulations that require LID to mitigate runoff for new development

3: Up to 40 points (Activity 450, Erosion and Sediment Control Regulations (ESC), pg. 450-18):

Credit for regulations that manage the impact of construction on erosion and sediment loads

4: Up to 20 points (Activity 450, Watershed Quality Regulations (WQ), pg. 450-20):

Credit for regulations that require the use of BMPs to improve watershed water quality

Code of Virginia, § 15.2-2280:

Zoning ordinances generally

Code of Virginia, § 36-98:

Adoption of a Uniform Statewide Building Code

Code of Virginia § 36-98:

Code shall not supersede proffered conditions accepted as a part of a rezoning application, special exceptions, special or conditional use permits or variances, clustering of single-family homes and preservation of open space development...historic districts… or local floodplain regulations adopted as a condition of participation in the NFIP

Code of Virginia, § 62.1-44.15:33:

Encourage low-impact development designs for controlling stormwater. Authorization for more stringent ordinances.

FEMA: Technical Fact Sheets to help inform coastal construction

FEMA: Model Code-Coordinated Ordinances

James River Association: Examples of Code and Ordinance Language for Better Site Design

Center for Watershed Protection: Code and Ordinance Worksheet

Ambrette, B. and A. W. Whelchel. 2013. Adapting to the Rise: A Guide for Connecticut’s Coastal Communities. The Nature Conservancy, Coastal Resilience Program. Publication 13-5, New Haven, CT.

FEMA. (2010). Home Builder’s Guide to Coastal Construction: Technical Fact Sheet Series.

Jones, C., Coulbourne, W., Marshall, J., & Rogers , S. (2006). Evaluation of the National Flood Insurance Program’s Building Standards. American Institutes for Research.

SFRPC. (2013). Adaptation Action Areas: Policy Options for Adaptive Planning for Rising Sea Levels. South Florida Regional Planning Council.