The Bureaucracy of Building a House

When I was a child, I got to see the house my grandfather built, by himself, in the 1950s, on a small plot of land, in a small rural town with dirt roads, for his wife and children.  It was a humble home, without many of the features considered essential in modern homes.  It had no electricity, no furnace, the walls were not insulated, and there was one large room with a wood burning stove in the middle that functioned as a kitchen/dining room/living room/bedroom.

In these simpler times, a man could build a house for his family, the best way he could, with the best means available to him at that time, and be applauded for it as a hard working man taking care of his family.  Fast forward to today and such a thing is not allowed anymore, because the politicians have made it illegal.

[amazon asin=0990463109&template=*lrc ad (left)]Today, if you want to build your own house, you, your architect, or your home builder, are required to comply with thousands of pages of modern bureaucratic rules controlling, regulating, limiting and mandating the way your home must be built.  To design something as simple as a single family home, the laws which have been established in my locale to which we must comply are:

-The 868 Page Residential Code

-49 pages of amendments to the Residential Code

-The 480 Page Fire Code

-193 pages of amendments to the Fire Code[amazon asin=1581607474&template=*lrc ad (right)]

-32 pages of administrative code

-Between 542 and 690 pages of zoning code (Depending on how your lot is zoned)

This means that if you want to build a home for your family today in my locale or somewhere similar, you are expected to understand and comply with between 2164 and 2312 pages of regulations.

Remember, these pages are literally jam-packed with rules, rules, and more rules.  There are so many rules that nobody can remember them all, which means that there’s no way to know which ones you’re missing, which means you never know which rules you may be unintentionally breaking.  And remember, these are not basic life/safety rules for structurally sound homes; these are obscure and trivial rules which control every tiny facet of [amazon asin=1440333165&template=*lrc ad (left)]everything in your home to a degree that no reasonable person even cares about.  The best a local architect can do is to understand the basics; the important factors of building a home, and then as many of the obscure ones as he can bother to learn and remember, before the next edition of the code becomes the law and more trivial and obscure rules are added, modified, or adjusted.  The problem is not the basic rules, it’s the obscure rules that you never use that get you each time.  Every time I ask permission, on my client’s behalf, to build a house on their property (they call this permission a “building permit” and if you don’t have one, it is illegal for you to build a house on your own property), I get some new obscure rule that I’ve never heard of before because the government agent on the other side of the table just had a training on this specific item, or he overheard someone else talking about it, or he happened upon it on an unrelated job, and now he thinks he must apply it to this project as well.  And when you ask him why this rule never applied to the dozens of projects you’ve done in the past, the answer is “well that one slipped through the cracks.”  I’m not kidding – on multiple occasions that has been the excuse proffered to me when I question why one arbitrary and inconsequential rule suddenly needs to be enforced when it has never even been mentioned in the past.

Here are some real examples of these obscure rules for you to consider if you ever decide to build a house in a jurisdiction similar to mine, and remember, each one of these is the law, and if you don’t comply, the administration section of the code purports to grant the local jurisdiction with the authority to fine, imprison, or fine and imprison you.  Remember, these rules are codified into law; it is a criminal offense to neglect them.[amazon asin=1470109441&template=*lrc ad (right)]

Any window in your home must not leak air more than 0.3 cubic feet per minute per square foot.  So if you install one drafty window in your home that leaks 0.4 cubic feet of air in one square foot of area, you can go to jail.

The metal used for of your toilet tank liner must have a minimum weight of 10 ounces per square foot.  If the manufacturer of your toilet did not know this obscure rule, you can go to jail.

Showers must be at least 30-inches wide.  If you have a tight bathroom and build a 29-inch shower, you can go to jail (confession time: once I designed a shower 28 inches wide by 60 inches long – oh the humanity!!).

If you have a hallway longer than 10 feet, you have to provide an electrical outlet in that hallway.  If you don’t think that you need one and don’t want to pay for one, you can go to jail.

If your house has a skylight, the glass of the skylight must be sloped at least 15 degrees.  If you install your skylight anywhere between flat and 14 degrees, you can go to jail.

The radius of curvature at each individual stair nosing cannot be greater than 9/16 inches.  If your stair nosing has a radius of curvature of 5/8-inch, you can go to jail.

Now, has anyone actually gone to jail over these petty and obscure rules?  Probably not, but that’s not the point.  The point is that you are threatened with being taken to jail if you do not comply, out of ignorance or recalcitrance.  Does anyone really think that without these laws, we would all suffer with drafty windows, leaking toilets, tiny showers, and dangerous stairs?  Only if you believe that it’s the thousands of pages of regulations that forced architects and homebuilders to provide them.  Or, if you understand that economic progress is brought by increased productive capacity, technology, and increased wealth, you realize that these are the reasons why so many enjoy higher quality homes than in decades past.  It is in understanding where economic progress comes from that you will ultimately discover the uselessness and redundancy of such bureaucratic rules being enforced through threats of fines and imprisonment at your architect and home builder.