May 28, 2010


I used to build decks for a living. To obtain a permit, we would prepare site plans and construction drawings to show that the deck complied with all applicable building codes. During the building process, a city inspector would come out twice, once to inspect the footing holes before we poured concrete, and again at the end of the project to be sure that we built according to the drawing. The more proactive cities also met with us on site before the first shovel-full of dirt was removed.

All these inspections naturally slowed down the process. Just pouring concrete footings took three days - one to dig, one for the inspector to come by and say 'yep those are deep enough', and one to pour. As a deck builder, we were fortunate to have at least one less inspection than other projects since all of our framing was still visible in the final project. But it still cost us time and money.

One year, a few overloaded decks made headlines when they pulled away from their houses and collapsed. At least one of them was at a fraternity party, and there were 50+ people on the deck. It turns out that neither of the decks were permited, they were not built to code, and they did not have the necessary lag screws tying the deck to the house.

In a typical knee-jerk reaction, building requirements were changed. Now we had to have a lag screw every 6 inches instead of every 16, even though every 16 inches was more than sufficient. The problem with the deck that fell down wasn't that it didn't have enough lag screws, the problem was it didn't have any. Instead of enforcing the current (sufficient) code, they upped the requirements to an overkill level to demonstrate "they were making sure this wouldn't happen again". Of course requiring permited jobs to do more than is necessary does nothing to solve the problem of unpermitted jobs not built to code.

We only need to scan the current headlines to find examples of lax enforcement. The latest coal mine explosion was at a mine with multiple violations, yet was still allowed to continue to operate. The Deepwater Horizon oil platform was allowed to drill without obtaining all the required permits, and there were far fewer inspections than as required by law.

Further regulation is sometimes required to prevent new abuses (as in the unregulated credit-default-swap markets), but a much more effective use of our time and money is to enforce the laws, rules and regulations already on the books. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction that promises sweeping changes, I would love to hear that they are focusing on enforcement instead. Plus we would get to skip much of the gridlock, filibustering and cries of socialism involved in writing new legislation.

Of course promising sweeping changes makes for great speeches on the campaign trail, but maybe the slogan "We're going to do what we promised" would play pretty well too.


SeanH said...

And it's iInteresting that these laws always end up hurting the Little Guy, because the Little Guy can barely afford to get around them.

matt said...

Nice one - enforce ALL the laws - and have the guts to stand up and change the stoopid ones.