Three Ways Building Codes Escalate Construction Costs

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).

Example #2:
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.

Example #3:
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
Mold Litigation

8 thoughts on “Three Ways Building Codes Escalate Construction Costs”

  1. “This means that the only 2 materials in the wall are polypropylene and earth. There is no wood to rot nor steel to corrode. Given that ideally there should be a 6-8% humidity in the wall which, with a porous plaster and paint system, will regulate the humidity in the house, any wood and steel is likely to degrade sooner rather than later.

    … no mesh is required over the bags to aid adhesion of the plaster.” (

    “Three years on, despite awful substrate, no foundation to speak of, and plaster applied straight onto bags, there is not a crack anywhere.” (40/49)
    (note that these bags — except the foundation — are filled with pure sand – no clay or cement)

    Surfing onward, I found a link to New Mexico’s earthen building code. I thought “Wow, an enlightened state recognizing their history.”

    Then I started reading it… “Wow, this is a dream come true for cement and steel manufacturers! Who would want to build an earthbag building if you have to jump through this many hoops? By the time you are done, it is mostly concrete anyway.” The code treats the earthbags like conventional masonry units, completely missing the point (IMO). The experience in South Africa suggests that they are much better (more flexible and forgiving) than any CMU.

    • Oh, for sure. What you say is correct. One of the South African projects is on the inside cover of my earthbag guide. It shows a huge school under construction. The school has been engineered and meets local code, and yet like you say there’s a fraction of the steel and concrete required elsewhere. It all goes back to who wrote the codes. Who wrote the codes? The concrete, steel, brick and timber industries (along with the insurance companies). What do people expect?

  2. All regulations are meant to limit competition. It’s their main purpose written under the quise of “safety”.
    The only “regulations” we need are in defense of personal property rights. Get off my land, and keep your pollution on yours. That’s about it.

    People should keep this in mind when you hear congress talking about banking reform, tax reform etc… They are meant to keep the elite where they are. In bailout wonderland, free from the competition of honest businesses.

    • I agree completely. I think the building code department should hire you to write new building codes. You could cover everything in 1-2 pages.

  3. I agree with you 99%.

    We might even agree on the last remaining 1%, but perhaps not.

    The 1% I refer to is that I happen to think that some LIMITED building codes do make some sense.

    I think it is fair to have codes that prevent one land owner from polluting his neighbors’ land.

    For example, I do not want my neighbor’s open pit outhouse to leach into the ground water and contaminate my well spreading disease to my family’s drinking water.

    That does not mean I think everyone must have an expensive septic system, or pay exorbitant rates for public sewers. (Many of those systems leak and contaminate ground water anyway.) There are many safe and healthy options for treating waste that do not require large expense. All I ask is that my neighbor keep his poop out of my drinking water. How he does it is his business, as long as he does it. If he pollutes my drinking water, I want the government to take SERIOUS action to protect my health, my family’s health, and the rest of our neighbors’ health.

    Basic rule of thumb… someone should be allowed to build how they want on their own land as long as it doesn’t infringe on their neighbors.

    If your closest neighbor is 2 miles away in a remote area, that should not be difficult to accomplish.

    If your closest neighbor is 10 feet away in a suburb, it gets a lot more difficult to keep your actions from infringing on your neighbor.

    I suppose some guy on an intersection shouldn’t build a 10′ tall fence 6 inches next to the road which blocks the view of motorists at the intersection causing accidents. Something like that might be reasonable too.

    See where I’m going? Keep it simple. A few codes to protect the public good make sense, especially if they are enforced equally. Rich or poor. Big business, or small one room cabin. Nobody should trample the rights of their neighbor.

    Sadly, the little guy almost always gets taken advantage of when it comes time for enforcement of codes, while the big wealthy guys tend get away with whatever they want.

    Building codes that mandate size of house, materials it is made out of, and other such nonsense should get dumped in the leftover open pit outhouses with the rest of the $hit!

    Of course, if we had a building code and enforcment that made sense, the first thing we should do would be to make it very difficult to build the extremely inefficient, moldy, fire prone, outgassing, generic, death trap, money pits that standard code approved construction practices currently promote. Then again, asking for our building codes to make sense is too much to ask.

    • Well said and I agree. I’ve said similar things about having a few common sense codes in other blog posts. The key words are simple and common sense. If any readers are in doubt about current codes and whether or not they’re ‘simple and common sense’ then please pick up a copy of the code book at your library and try to read a few pages. Seriously, take a look for yourself and what I’m saying will become clear. After about 5-20 seconds you’ll see it’s like trying to read Chinese or some ancient lost language created by lawyers. It’s all intentional of course. They make it so convoluted that only highly trained specialists can figure it out, and after having studied it for years and years the specialists decide they can make a lot of money by going along with the current system.

    • The last building code blog post (Petition North Carolina Building Codes Council) drew lots of interest. So I thought I’d pile on another similar article.


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