Offering help in a storm

Oct 8, 2008

Architects volunteer to assess the utility of buildings after disasters


Florida Today--October 8, 2008

The leadership of the American Institute of Architects’ Florida chapter says it has a deal for Gov. Charlie Crist and state lawmakers that costs nothing and could mean residents displaced by storms get back to their homes faster.

The plan is to have a team of qualified architects from around Florida who can be "deputized" by local building officials to help inspect properties following a storm or some other natural disaster.

The deputized architect would be able to quickly assess a building or structure and declare it livable or partially livable.

It would take some of the strain off of local building departments, which often are short on staff and resources, and provide property owners a quicker sense of whether they can move back into their properties in the wake of a damaging storm, proponents say.

"Our goal is to try to bring properties back to some semblance of what is normal," said Michael Lingerfelt, an Orlando-based architect and vice president of the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

There’s no expense to the state, which would merely need to vest local building officials with the authority to deputize the certified inspectors.

Lingerfelt and 48 architects and engineers in Florida received special training and certification from the state of California to assess damage. That means following an earthquake, for example, Florida architects and engineers could go to that state, if requested, to help with damage assessment there.

The training is recognized by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That’s the program the Florida group wants Crist and other lawmakers to copy.

In Brevard County, Randy Thron, an architect with Suntree-based BRPH Inc., is one of the California-certified architects. He and 25 others received the certification following a six-hour course in Orlando last month.

"I think this would be a tremendous resource for the state," said Thron, an architect since 1983.

"It’s kind of a no-brainer. You’d have a good, qualified pool of people you can call on if needed."

Lingerfelt said he envisions that pool of architects acting as sort of second responders following a disaster. The first responders — emergency personnel such as paramedics — would get people out of harm’s way while the next group would be able to assess a structure’s habitability. They wouldn’t make any financial assessments for insurance purposes or decisions regarding aid from the FEMA, he said.

The California program had been around for a few years. The professionals certified in that program, including Lingerfelt, got their first taste of action following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Louisiana contacted California for building inspectors to assess structures there, a duty that took on greater importance because nearly all of the local building officials in some areas fled the storm and were slow to return.

Lingerfelt said representatives from the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects were working with emergency management officials in the administration of then-Gov. Jeb Bush following the 2004 hurricanes. But many of those contacts left when Crist took office in 2007, and since then it has been back to the drawing board.

"We’re going to meet with the governor and lay it at his feet," Lingerfelt said.