Central Planners and Pagodas

Not long ago I attended an interesting presentation by an engineer who had the job of promoting the use of wood in the construction of commercial and industrial buildings.  Traditionally, wood has not been used to a great extent outside of residential home construction.  The primary purpose of the presentation was to demonstrate that wood can displace concrete and steel in many large-scale building projects.

The engineer drove the point home when he observed that some of the oldest and tallest structures in the world are wood pagodas that were built centuries ago.  For example, the five story Palsangjeon Pagoda in Korea was first built in 553 AD and stood for over ten centuries until damage incurred during war with Japan necessitated its rebuilding in 1626 [1].   The rebuilt pagoda still stands to this day, almost four centuries later.  The sixty-seven meter tall Sakyamuni Pagoda in China was first built in 1056 [2].  This majestic building has withstood strong earthquakes over the centuries and yet stands as solid today as it did almost one thousand years ago.

His presentation made it obvious that wood is an excellent building material: it is technically well understood, it is durable and it can be used very successfully to build stunning structures.  I thought it was rather odd that, in the year 2012, arguments had to be made in favour of the use of wood in construction projects.

Then, at the end of his talk I asked him if those magnificent old pagodas would pass modern building code standards.  He thought for a moment and then responded with a straightforward “no”.  Because the techniques and materials used to build these wooden structures would not pass government-mandated building codes, their construction would be declared illegal.  Think of the absurdity:  modern building codes make it illegal for any engineer or architect to design and build a structure identical to the wonderful, safe, and durable Sakyamuni Pagoda.

The absurdity is understood once one recognizes that building codes are like any other top-down mandates that arise out of central planning bureaucracies.  But how do the building codes come about in the first place?  Some of the codes originate with government-employed bureaucrats who believe they know best how to distill the vast knowledge of building methods and technologies into thousands of legally mandated rules.  And some originate with special interests, such as private individuals and organizations, who lobby the bureaucrats to write codes that favour their business interests.  After all, the codes can be used to create barriers for competitors that would otherwise be impossible to create in a free market.  For example, those in the steel or concrete industries might lobby the bureaucrats to favour steel and concrete in certain building applications, the goal being to suppress the use of competing materials such as wood.

If the manner in which the building codes come about is somewhat dubious, then the manner in which they are sold to the public and the politicians is exceedingly dubious.  Traditionally the codes have been sold as being necessary to keep the public “safe”.  It is mistakenly believed that without the codes, engineers and architects would build awful, dangerous structures that would collapse and kill untold numbers of women and children (they better not even think about building wood pagodas).  It is interesting to note, however, that any quantitative correlation between building codes and an increase or decrease in public safety that results from their enactment into law is never provided.  By never uncovering the true value of the codes it is easier for the special interests to enjoy the financial benefits of codes that are favourable to them.

Another, more recent, method of selling the codes uses the new pseudo-science of “carbon costing” (brought to us by our friends at the UN and its technocratic affiliate, the International Standards Organization).  Rather than depending upon the fiction of public safety, the new carbon costing approach wraps the sophistry of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) inside of mathematical equations.  The equations spit-out cost factors that are used to rank different building methods & materials.  Those that have the lowest costs are declared the winners by the technocrats who write the building codes.  The equations are then held-up as “scientific proof” that the building codes are necessary to ensure that mankind doesn’t face global warming Armageddon caused by engineers and architects who would otherwise show no respect for carbon-sensitive Mother Earth.

For example, the steel industry might develop equations that “prove” that steel has a better carbon cost than wood in some applications.  The wood industry might do the same against the steel industry.  The special interests whose carbon cost equations are accepted by the bureaucrats enjoy a financial windfall after their materials, technologies and/or building processes are given legal preference in the codes.  One cannot imagine how convoluted and corrupt the building codes will become with these added twists, nor can one imagine the large real financial costs that will be incurred by the contrived virtual carbon costs.

Giving undue financial advantage to one special interest over another is not the only negative effect of the building codes.  The codes also work to suppress the creativity of engineers and architects by applying an immutable, one-size-fits-all straight jacket to their designs.  Not only does this negatively affect the potential greatness and novelty of building designs, but it also hampers the introduction of safer buildings because thinking outside of the box is discouraged.

Furthermore, building technology, like all technologies, advances much more quickly than the speed of change offered by the technocrats and their building codes.  The codes are always behind the times and hence retard the introduction and use of new technologies that are cheaper, more efficient and safer.  In this way the codes work contrary to their stated purpose.

(Note that for the engineer and architect, the punishments that can be inflicted for disobeying the building code mandates are serious.  For example, an engineer or architect who is found guilty of violating one, or more, of the thousands of code rules could have his government-issued license suspended or revoked, thus depriving him of his ability to make a living.  He could also be fined and ruined financially, or worse yet, imprisoned if he persists in attempting to satisfy the needs of his “pagoda-buying” customers.)

Even though there are thousands upon thousands of building code rules, they can never cover all scenarios because the technologies and demands of customers are simply too complex.  Therefore, the usefulness of building codes is always overstated by the technocrats and special interests.  Some codes are barely sufficient and some are simply laughed at by those trained in the art.  You know what I mean if you’ve ever watched an episode of HGTV’s “Holmes on Homes”.  The show’s star,  Mike Homes, routinely, and proudly, builds structures that are “better than code”.  (Such episodes must be very embarrassing for the government bureaucrats who write the codes.)

Furthermore, a shoddy builder that “meets code” can use an insufficient code as a defence against poor workmanship as the code can make it easier for him to hide behind the law.  Suing a builder who “meets code” is very difficult.

In conclusion, the negative aspects of government-mandated building codes are rarely mentioned or discussed.  It is time to recognize their negative, often unseen, effects as well as the private financial and political motives that bring them about.


[1] “Palsangjeon”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palsangjeon (Wikipedia.org)

[2] “Sakyamuni Pagoda – The Tallest Wooden Structure in the World”,  http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_artqa/2003-09/24/content_38884.htm (Chinaculture.org)

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