Monday, June 13, 2016

Building codes, vs. Building Communities

Long time readers of this blog or our PreserveOregon page on Facebook know that we are often frustrated by building code and code officials.  Not that there is anything wrong with efforts to assure that new (or restored) buildings are safe but there is an unfortunate lack of flexibility in the application code and a forest-for-the-trees approach the government and legal system bring to enforcement that is based on liability, not logic.  Code officials, and because of them, the public, often believe that “doesn’t meet code” is the same thing as “dangerous.”  That is rarely the case.  The building you are in right now, unless it was built yesterday, doesn’t “meet code.”

Certainly there are historic buildings that have structural or systems issues that should be corrected.  But as code officials are prone to remind you, because “somebody died for every line of building code,” code is based on the concept that every building should be absolutely no ifs ands or buts as safe as technology can make it.  Building code reminds me of TSA…because one stupid guy tried to blow up an airplane with a shoe bomb, every single airplane passenger has to remove their shoes.  I’m not sure that is really necessary.

A major problem with all that code-driven safety is that it costs lots of money.  Sometimes the burden for existing buildings is so high that owners won’t upgrade at all, because doing so triggers a requirement for full code compliance.  That can leave buildings, un-reinforced masonry buildings for example, completely under-structured even when financially viable upgrades could be easily done but a full code compliant upgrade isn't possible or feasible.  I have long said that you can upgrade most anything to 90% of current code for $X, but the last 10% will cost you $100x more.  I’m not mathematician, but I'm pretty sure that 90% is better than nothing.  I think allowing major improvement, even if not full code compliance, is a good thing for many reasons, preservation being just one of them.  And, of course, the reality is that building code, because of lawsuits, has a huge CYA component that drives costs through the roof and provides little additional benefit.  That too, even for new construction, has huge implications.

In Oregon the cost of housing is skyrocketing and homelessness is an increasing problem.  Cities, for entirely valid reasons, have limits on building from both code and zoning, that make the threshold for new housing steep.  That can be building code, each line saving a life, or it can be zoning, with minimum lot sizes and setbacks and off-street parking and whatever.  All of those things are designed to protect lives or property values (keeping your neighbor from building a “hovel” and impacting your house).  Again, this is all fine and valid, but it surely has the result of making housing more costly, meaning less people can be housed.  It keepd the costs of existing land and buildings high, in a time of declining real income and growing population, almost guaranteeing a housing crisis.

Other countries have housing that we might consider substandard (and it assuredly is) but it seems to house people pretty well most of the time.  Maybe if the US re-thought building code there would be some method to make reasonably safe, high-value, housing available to more people?
Zoning code too causes some weird issue.  In the 1950s cities determined that uses should be divided by type; housing in one area, commercial and industrial in others, because nobody wants to live next to a slaughterhouse or a junk yard.  But the way that reasonable idea has been implemented has made it almost impossible to have a neighborhood store or a corner bar or coffee shop within walking distance of housing, especially in newer parts of town.  I’m not sure that’s good.  Small neighborhood stores are really convenient, they build community and, well, they support small, locally-owned, business.  Instead much of America has to drive somewhere to buy a carton of milk.  Not the most environmentally wise thing, nor all that good for the waistline either.

A city councilor is a successful city once told me that if you want to reduce the cost of housing, reduce the minimum lot size.  If current lots are 5000 s.f. minimum and you reduce it to 4000 s.f. the cost of a house (or at least the land) would theoretically drop 20% (just like that).  If cities reduce concerns about building and planning code (allowing more reasonable code, or taller buildings, or increased lot coverage, or whatever) the cost of construction would drop too.  This is, in part, the concept behind “Tiny Houses,” but tiny houses are only rarely legal in most American cities.

All this relates to historic preservation because the cost of code upgrades to historic buildings and the difficulties in meeting code can be a major obstacle (if only for bank funding) to reusing existing building stock.  It shouldn’t be.  While a 100 year old building may not meet current code, there is no dispute that it has been standing, functioning, and housing human activity for 100 years.  Even the newest, built-to-the-nines, code compliant structure can’t say that.  Nor is there any guarantee that such a new building will survive for 100 years into the future.  Even if it does, it too would probably be treated as if it were dangerously out of code by that time too. 

It seems to me that cities would do well to rethink the overall goals of both building and zoning codes.  There are lots of good ideas there, but perhaps some of them have been so over-generalized that they actually inhibit other community goals.  I wish I could say I held out much hope positive change that reduces regulations could happen, but I don’t.  To paraphrase the famous quote from the movie Back to the Future, “first we would have to kill all the lawyers.”