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Safe Rooms and Storm Shelter Construction

With severe weather events becoming more frequent in the Midwest and the barrage of television advertisements for pre-fabricated and national chain storm shelter contractors, homeowners have become more interested in their homes offering protection from the dangers of tornadoes and excessive wind. This makes it more important than ever for builders to have a clear understanding of homeowner intentions and objectives, industry-accepted terms, and construction requisites for qualified storm shelters and safe rooms. Failing to recognize these issues or not having the requisite expertise to address appropriately may result in a homeowner trusting they will have an area within their home that provides “near-absolute protection” from injury, with reality being an area constructed that may not withstand storm conditions.

In 2008, the International Code Council and the National Storm Shelter Association jointly published the Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters (“ICC-500”), which is a technical document providing minimum design and construction requirements for a shelter intended to withstand high magnitude winds, elevated pressures on structures, and resistance from extraordinary flying debris.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also established design requirements for defined “safe rooms,” which provide slightly different protection than a shelter constructed in accordance with ICC-500. FEMA’s design standards, set forth in Taking Shelter From The Storm: Building a Safe Room For Your Home or Small Business (“FEMA P-302”), are purported to meet or exceed the requirements of ICC-500.

A primary goal of both of these standards is to ensure that the constructed shelters and safe room areas will provide a homeowner refuge from the elements associated with severe storms. The design and construction specifications mandate minimum standards intended to resist damage due to certain levels of wind speed and debris impact. The standards also specify occupant life, safety and health requirements, including means of egress, lighting, sanitation, ventilation, fire safety, and floor space. The ICC-500 does not, however, require the shelter to be underground or be a separate room solely for protection purposes; it can be a room at ground level and regularly incorporated into a home.

It is important that builders are knowledgeable of the design and construction requirements, as well as incorporate the correct and necessary specifications within their contracts. This should also assist the builder to accurately charge for the products and materials desired and expected by the homeowner. Unless the builder intends to strictly comply with these measures, it is recommended to avoid use of the expression “storm shelter” and “safe room” as a part of any homeowner discussions and contract specifications, since these terms are becoming industry-defined and commonly understood language, both being associated with the ICC-500 and FEMA P-320 construction and design standards.

Defending a breach of contract, construction defect or personal injury cause of action when a homeowner or his family suffers injury after seeking refuge in a room the homeowner believed was constructed for their safety will prove challenging when not designed or constructed to resist extraordinary loads and flying debris.

For more information about this or any construction-related legal topic, please contact attorney Shannon Frank at sfrank@KDDK.com or (812) 423-3183, or contact any member of the KDDK Construction Law or Real Estate Law Practice Team.

About the Author

Shannon S. Frank

Shannon S. Frank, a Partner at Kahn, Dees, Donovan & Kahn, LLP (KDDK), in Evansville, Indiana, has more than 20 years’ experience in the practice of business law, construction law, estate planning and probate administration, health care law, and real estate law. Shannon takes prides in giving exceptional service to her clients, recognizing that relationships with clients play a significant and essential role in providing tailored and comprehensive legal advice.