What’s Not Forbidden Is Mandated

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Last week I was driving down the highway to meet with some clients when I passed a billboard off the road that caught my eye. On this billboard was a picture of the Wright brothers’ first airplane flight with the caption, “The Right Idea Will Fly. Innovation: pass it on”. If you haven’t seen this billboard, you can see it online here.

I actually liked that ad; it summed up in a very succinct manner the idea that if you want to create something new, if you want to advance yourself, if you want to be a part of the progress of mankind, you have to innovate. Interestingly enough, that billboard happened to be quite pertinent to my own situation, because at that moment, I was on my way to try to pass my innovative idea through one of my local government regulatory agencies.

I am an architect. I design buildings, and it’s my job to try and be innovative. However, every year it seems to be getting harder and harder for people such as myself to be innovative, because all that innovation is being choked out by an ever growing compendium of government regulations and controls. Which leads me back to my story: I was headed to the local county building department to try and obtain permission for my client to build a warehouse on a large piece of rural property that he owned. They call this permission a “building permit”, and unless you are granted one of them by the local bureaucracy, it is a criminal offense to build. Both my client and I had recently jumped on a new fad in architectural design, that is, building out of used shipping containers. Economically speaking, the shipping container is a great architectural tool; it is large, spacious, structurally sound and you can buy them cheap. I had designed a warehouse for him which utilized two shipping containers to act both as main structural elements as well as large storage spaces. It was a design that was simple and economical, integrating an unrelated element into a unified package; in other words, it was innovative. And that’s why we couldn’t build it.

Unfortunately for my client, in the eyes of the local building department this warehouse design was strange and unusual, and was not the “normal” way one is supposed to build a warehouse. At the county offices where we were meeting, the young county official could not find in his copy of the building code anywhere where something like a shipping container was allowed to be used as a building element.

For those who don’t know, the building code is a 679-page document that does two things: forbids and mandates. In examining the building code you will find that each page is either mandating something that must be done for your building to be considered “safe”, or forbidding something that must not be done lest your building be deemed “unsafe”. This code has been adopted by most county governments across the country, and most of them will not allow a building to be constructed which does not meet the rigidity of the building code. Well, I’m sure the people who wrote that code are nice people, but it must not have crossed their minds that someone would fathom to use something as unusual as a shipping container as a building tool, because as it turns out, the young county official was correct; shipping containers are not mentioned in the building code. Consequently, he did not grant us permission to build with them, because as the logic goes, if something is not in the building code, that must mean that it is unsafe to build with.

This made me recollect an ancient custom from the old Roman Empire, where many magnificent Roman arches were constructed. During the construction of such an arch, reinforcements of wood scaffolding were erected to support the unfinished arch until all the stones required for the arch to be self-supporting were placed. After the construction of a grand stone arch, as the wood scaffolding was removed from underneath the stones, the architect of that arch would stand under it, literally guaranteeing with his own life that his arch would stand. In today’s modern world, the responsibility of guaranteeing the soundness of a building has been taken away from the modern architect, replaced with the infallible building code. It is no longer acceptable for a modern architect, no matter how well he is trained, no matter how thorough his education, no matter how complete his understanding, to guarantee his own work, even with his own life, by opening himself up to the possible consequences of a faulty design. The solution given to us by the building code is that faulty designs are simply no longer allowed. Or stated more accurately, anything that might remotely be considered a faulty design is not allowed. A rigid standard has been mandated by most of the local governments around the country and all buildings must fit inside this box. Unfortunately, innovative designs must be, by definition, outside of the box. And unfortunately, innovative designs can, on occasion, be faulty. The Wright brothers proved this many years ago, when many of their own designs were found to be faulty and were discarded before they created a design that worked. And they certainly put their own lives on the line to guarantee their work, so why can’t we do the same today?

Mankind’s history is full of architectural marvels that really pushed the envelope and broke new ground during their respective eras. Unfortunately for us today, the possibility for a similar thing happening is growing smaller as the regulations concerning building design grow larger. Every few years a new edition of the building code comes out with more limitations, more controls and more requirements that choke out innovation and creativity. And this is a shame, for today there are so many new and emerging technologies that should have long ago revolutionized aspects of building design and construction, but because they do not fit within the guidelines that were codified based on what is now aged technology, they will never be allowed to see the light of day. Innovation can be made alive again if only the regulations suffocating it would step aside.

Michael Fiebig [send him mail] is a registered architect currently practicing in the state of Colorado.

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