The Building Code: Robbing Us of Imagination, Fun, and Personal Responsibility

Posted on March 7, 2014


Building codes should be about buildings, not about people.

As you have read here previously, Lila and Hubby are in the process of building a house.  This process is much more fluid than I thought it would be:  the Code has changed recently, requiring our builder to re-work some of our architect’s plans, but always with our approval.  Generally the conversation goes like this:  “We can’t build your ____ the way it shows on the plan, because it won’t meet code requirements.  But we can do it this way, if that’s okay with you.”  We have a good builder and sensible subcontractors, so generally things are working out well.  But occasionally, Lila will see a sudden opportunity for whimsy, for a fun change to the plan that would still work perfectly well.  Alas, these ideas are never to be, because they don’t meet The Code, that over-arching guardian of all that is boring, nonsensical, expensive, and generally overblown in terms of keeping your home reasonably safe.

After a fairly innocuous and sensible-sounding (but kind of cool) idea was shot down by The Code, our conversation went like this:  “Oh, is this like that thing where you have to have electrical outlets every so many inches in the kitchen, even though it lands an outlet right on top of your kitchen sink?”  “Yes,” said Builder, “And what’s even funnier, is that while they are insisting on power outlets within inches of your kitchen sink, they won’t allow a light within four feet of your bathtub.  I had a customer who wanted a chandelier in his bathroom, and they wouldn’t approve it because – as they said –  ‘He might stand on the edge of the tub to change a bulb, and then he could fall in, and if the tub were full, he could be electrocuted.'”

I don’t even know where to begin with this.  First off, I’m pretty sure that if you fall into your tub, you are probably not still holding on to your chandelier, unless you are the famous 8’11” tall Robert Wadlow or have endlessly elastic arms like Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four.  Secondly, even to imagine such an unlikely scenario, aren’t the Code People getting a little paranoid… and a little specific?  I mean, does this electrocution-in-the-tub-while-changing-a ceiling-light-bulb scenario happen often enough to need some kind of rule to prevent it?  Really?  Has it ever happened?

I am thankful for rules about wiring that are meant to keep your house from burning down.  I can understand rules about the spaces between the balusters on your deck railing or staircase, lest children slip through and fall.  But just like so many other Nanny-State bureaucratic  things, The Code has gone too far in my opinion.  It has reached that point of paternalism that I hold in utter contempt, showing as it does a complete lack of confidence in the average person’s common sense.

Then again, as Builder notes, people really do seem to be getting stupider… or at least, less aware of how things generally work or how to properly take care of things.  As an example, Builder told me of a family who had just moved in to their brand-new home and within the first month, had a major (and expensive) repair to  their septic pump.  When the pump was examined, it was completely clogged with thick, gooey grease that they had been pouring down their kitchen drain, even after Builder had warned them to be careful about keeping such stuff out of their drains.  They tried to blame the mess on a painter, rather improbably claiming that the fatty glop was paint.  One would think people would know better, but alas, the giant grease-balls of the London sewers  seem to indicate that this family is probably pretty typical… and as a result, we had to fight to get a garbage disposal installed in our new construction, because people like the Greaseball Family lead the Code People to assume that no one can manage a disposal and a septic system at the same time.

I kind of prefer the Personal Responsibility approach.  If I am so stupid as to expensively goop up my septic system, then paying for the repairs should be my justly earned “punishment.”  If I am so stupid as to fill my tub with water and then go through some sort of majorly difficult contortion to hold onto something electric while falling in the tub, well… that’s Darwin for ya.  No sympathy here.

A building code should be about the safety of the building under normal, reasonable use.  It should not be about trying to eliminate the possibility of personal acts of extreme stupidity.