Jun 17, 2012

The pursuit of code compliance

It is an odd position for an architect to be critical of Zoning and Building codes, but the more i learn, the more i ask myself -- in light of the many loopholes in the regulatory process -- what do we gain and what do we give up by subjecting our structures (and ourselves), to such rules?

Quite simply, sometimes zoning doesn't work.
The planning process is "costly," "conservative," "noninnovative," and "highly subjective." In addition, the actors who plan -- not only the professional planners but those who are involved in even the most advanced of participatory schemes -- are incompetent to plan. Citizens are ignorant of the means-ends relationships and are unwilling to make long-range decisions; when they do take action, results tend to be poor.
....Even planners themselves conclude that implementation of comprehensive plans is an activity that the planning profession has performed poorly.[1]
What is the point of zoning if we're bound to make bad choices? Conventional wisdom says that we need to follow a plan, but surely not every city is built with careful deliberation.

What if variances from regulations were easy to get? What if building and zoning codes more accurately reflected the complexities of building in the real world? Would it be easier for cities to (physically and conceptually) navigate uncertainty or to capture a "messy vitality"[2]?

What do these organically grown cities look like? New Orleans, according to Andres Duany. Post Katrina, he remarked:
The lost housing of New Orleans is quite special. Entering the damaged and abandoned houses, you can still see what they were like before the hurricane. They were exceedingly inexpensive to live in, built by people’s parents and grandparents or by small builders paid in cash or by barter. Most of these simple, pleasant houses were paid off. They had to be because they do not meet any sort of code and are therefore not mortgageable by current standards.
It was possible to sustain the unique culture of New Orleans because housing costs were minimal, liberating people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure. There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to practice music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty—but as a way of life.
This ease, which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. The higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.[3]

It is comments like this and my own observations in the field that make me aware that our Building and Zoning Codes are a reflection of our lifestyle. Are we giving up too much in the pursuit of strict code compliance that grows ever more idealistic and theoretical, divorced from the realities of the real world, which demands greater adaptability, flexibility of thought?

[1] Babcock, Richard F. and Charles L. Simeon. The Zoning Game Revisited. Boston: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. 1985, 261-62.
[2] Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
[3] Duany, Andres. Restoring the Real New Orleans: How do we save the Crescent City? Re-create the unique building culture that spawned it. MetropolisMag.com. Posted Feb 14, 2007. Accessed  Jun 17. 2012. http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20070214/restoring-the-real-new-orleans