Do you think building codes are fair and set up primarily for society’s protection? Guess again. In reality, building codes were written by the timber, steel, brick and concrete industries, in collaboration with banks and insurance companies to maximize profits for themselves. This creates barriers to entry that make it difficult to build with alternative materials.
Here’s a true story about a friend’s house in Colorado. Dean built his house in the 1960’s when building codes were less strict than they are today. At that time he was able to build a modern, very nice looking 2,000 sq. ft. home on a shoestring budget by building with wood from a local sawmill. I can’t remember the cost – it’s been years since he told me the story, and he’s sadly passed on – but the cost was shockingly low (somewhere around a few thousand dollars for a truckload of rough sawn lumber), because the wood was direct from a local mill. Dean told me the story with a big smile in about 1999 while we worked on renovating his home. The Douglas fir studs were so hard that it was almost impossible to drive nails. Everything had to be pre-drilled. The wood was far superior to the poor quality lumber now being sold in building supply centers. Thirty some years later the house was still in excellent condition, and yet Dean pointed out how you can no longer build this way. The sawmill went broke when building codes started requiring lumber must come from certified and inspected mills. That gave a financial edge to giant Weyerhaeuser type companies, and consequently many small companies got wiped out. So what’s the situation now? Just look at the crap lumber that ‘meets code’. If it’s not already twisted and bowed like a banana, it probably soon will be (except for the high grade lumber that’s usually set aside for big construction firms).
Building methods such as adobe, rammed earth, earthbag and other simple methods can end up costing more than energy intensive, mass produced materials due to building codes. For instance, a simple cabin could cost $100,000 when you’re finished meeting code. Note that adobe and rammed earth construction go back many thousands of years, and earthen construction has been shown to easily outlast most modern building materials. But since the codes are skewed to favor modern materials, most homebuilders choose stick frame construction with sheetrock and pressed board siding even though the end product is far inferior.
Still think the codes are fair and reasonable? Keep reading. The more you dig into this the more dirt you’ll find. The latest trend is Nuisance Abatement Teams that penalize homeowners for any minor infraction they come up with. I’ve explained this process in Building Codes are a Slippery Slope. (“Give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile.”) Things don’t have to be this way, but that’s the direction we’re headed. When powerful interests inhibit the freedom for people to build their own home affordably, then I’ll call it like I see it.
Note: Before leaving a long comment about how much you love building codes please read the following blog post about Counties with Few or No Building Codes.
Battle for the California Desert
How to Build a House that Will Self Destruct and Burn Like Crazy
Trailer Houses versus Earthbag Building
Natural Building in Comparison to Stick Frame
American Housing Ripoff
A Sad Story of What Can Happen Without a Permit
How the Law Caught Up With a Marin County Visionary