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Essential Principles of a Building Code.
By LAWRENCE VEILLER, New York City,
Formerly Deputy Tenement House Commissioner.
If, as frequently stated, the tariff is the mother of trusts, then building codes may be said to be the foster mothers of municipal corruption. Tariffs and building codes are very much alike. Each is nothing more nor less than a gigantic specification --and each special “interest" does its best to see that it is taken care of in it. No greater corrupting influence is exerted upon municipal government than this. Few cities can boast of a clean building department and there are few building departments that are not dominated by sordid influences.
New York has but recently witnessed revelations of a sinister nature in this field.
Last summer public attention in that city was centered upon a building code presented to the community after two years of work and the expenditure of several thousand dollars. But the public discussion which revolved around it turned not upon the merits of the code, not upon how effectively it would safeguard human life or the public health, but solely upon whether the Murphy interests or the Croker interests would prevail, whether "hollow tile" would drive “cinder-concrete” out of business, whether a special kind of paint, and a patent fire-nozzle would be foisted upon the community.
No piece of local legislation as a rule approaches in importance the enactment of a proper building code. Upon the soundness of its provisions depends to a large extent the future character of every city and the prosperity, health and social welfare of its citizens. Upon the wisdom with which it is drawn will rest the determination of the city's future growth, and the manner of that growth.
Affecting as it does so closely the homes of the people, their places of labor, of public assemblage, of recreation, it becomes of vital importance.
Building codes must necessarily vary in different cities and be adapted to the needs of each locality, but certain essential principles govern all of them.
In the first place they are for practical use by builders, architects, plumbers and mechanics. The first requisite is therefore
clearness. What the law intends must be quickly Clearness
and readily understood. They should, too, as Requisite
far as practicable, be concise in form. Their provisions should be expressed in short separate sentences, not in long involved paragraphs. Precision is of vital importance. All terms should be carefully defined. On the other hand such laws must be so drawn as to stand the test in the courts. In a word, they should be as if written by laymen for laymen, and yet at the same time so carefully drawn that every word has its exact legal value and says neither more nor less than is intended.
The great and vital thing overshadowing all others in importance, is that there shall be uniformity of treatment for all persons affected by its provisions. There must be no discrimination between individuals, nor any opportunity for such discrimination. Affecting as it does vast property interests, it must be based upon foundations of justice and fairness.
And yet, it is at this point that most building laws fail viz., in their treatment of the granting of discretionary power
to the enforcing officials. Every architect and Discretionary
every builder will tell you that he is in favor of Power
discretionary power. That it is essential, that the building industry is a constantly changing one and that building laws cannot be rigid. There must be flexibility to them or the building industry will suffer; the architect must have free play for the exercise of his originality. If you question him, however, he will admit that it is in the exercise of this discretionary power that municipal corruption lies.
Nothing leads to corruption so rapidly as leaving indefinitely to a single official the determination of what shall be done in individual cases without possibility of review. Favored architects in a short time, because of friendship or political influences, or because of a corrupt understanding with the enforcing official, are gradually able to crowd out of business competitors without
these advantages or who are unwilling to adopt the methods employed by their less scrupulous rivals, and ultimately a situation develops by which a few firms of architects and builders are able to control the entire business of a community.
In this subject is wrapped up nearly everything of importance in a building code. There is little use in providing with minute care for the thickness of walls of certain heights, the methods of building fire-stops, the way in which plumbing shall be vented, if at the same time you give to your enforcing official the power to change all these requirements in his discretion. Further forms of favoritism are found in practices which flow
from this situation, some of which have become Favoritism
the more accepted and most successful forms of modern municipal corruption. The methods of direct stealing from the city which were in vogue in Tweed's time are no longer employed. They are not good form. Moreover, they are crude. We have learned a great deal since then. Most of the municipal corruption at the present time is to be found in the furnishing of inside information by which the political friends or business associates of public officers are enabled to make advantageous contracts and business deals—the “honest graft” of recent fame. The way in which this operates in the building industry and in the enforcement of building laws is intimately associated with this question of discretionary power.
What frequently happens is, that a corrupt superintendent of buildings refuses to permit some architect or builder to employ a method of construction which he has previously allowed in similar circumstances, stating that the matter is within his discretion. It then develops after several interviews that if the contract for erecting the building in question—which often amounts to thousands of dollars-is placed with the right firm of builders, or if a certain kind of floor arch or fireproof material is used, it is possible for him, upon “ further consideration of the matter”, and the presentation of “new arguments” to grant authority to utilize those methods of construction that had previously been denied.
Sometimes, too, buildings that are perfectly lawful, and strictly in accordance with the code are held up and the plans disapproved, until money has been paid for their approval.
An amusing instance of this kind occurred in New York during one of the Tammany administrations some years ago. The superintendent of buildings then in office was notoriously corrupt and stopped at nothing.
It is related (I cannot vouch for the entire accuracy of the story in all its details) that a certain builder having had his plans
held up, and wishing to go ahead with his buildA Tammany Incident
ing, receiving no satisfaction from the plan ex
aminers as to the reason for this delay, waited upon the superintendent whereupon the following conversation took place:
The Builder: “Mr. Superintendent, I'm a member of the general committee of Tammany Hall in good standing, and a particular friend of Tim Sullivan's—and I want me plans passed, as they're all right and according to law.
The Superintendent: (after a pause): It'll cost you five hundred dollars.
The Builder: (Thinking he hadn't been understood):
“Mr. Superintendent, you don't seem to understand. I say I'm a member of the general committee of Tammany Hall in good standing and a particular friend of Tim Sullivan's, and me plans are held up and I want them passed.
The Superintendent: (again after a pause): Yes-it'll cost you five hundred dollars. If you were'nt a friend of Tim Sullivan's it'd cost you two thousand dollars."
It is reported that Big Tim when he heard of it was lost in admiration of the man that dared “trim” his friends.
Even with honest public officials, large grants of discretionary power are unsafe. They inevitably lead to favoritism, discrimination, arbitrary use of authority, and nullification of the legislative intent.
A striking illustration of the last mentioned effect is found in the experience of New York City some years ago. In 1895 it Nullification of
was provided in the tenement house law enacted Laws
in that year that no tenement house erected after
that date should occupy more than 65% of the lot. This was the clear intent of the framers of the law. They, however, added a clause to the effect that where the light and
ventilation of a building was materially improved, the superintendent of buildings might permit a greater percentage of the lot to be occupied, but in no case more than 75%. In a word, they departed from their original purpose of definitely limiting the amount of land to be occupied, believing that the enforcing officer might be permitted to use his judgment and permit a larger proportion to be covered in special cases.
Now what actually happened? Within a year, every tenement house that was erected occupied the full 75% of the lot. No one even thought of covering any less, and from the very nature of things, nothing else could have been expected. If one architect presents a plan for a new building and the superintendent of buildings permits him to occupy 75% of the lot, a competing architect a few weeks later in submitting his plans will demand that he too be permitted to occupy as much. So gradually every architect insists upon his right to cover as much of the lot as his predecessors have done.
Arbitrary use of authority as a consequence of these vague grants of power seems to spring almost immediately from it. Heads of bureaus and their subordinates quickly learn to stretch the law beyond all reasonable limits—and when called to account by the protesting citizen invariably fall back on the answer: “This is a matter that is within the superintendent's discretion”. Sometimes it is, often it is not.
There is much misunderstanding about this question of discretionary power, not only as to what it is, but as to the necessity for it, and the position of architects, builders and others in the building trade in favor of large grants of power of this kind can not be successfully sustained. Their contention, however, that
building codes should not be too rigid and that Rigidity
they must have sufficient elasticity to provide for the changing developments in the building industry, with the discovery of new processes and new materials, is absolutely sound. One, however, does not involve the other. It is entirely feasible to provide sufficient elasticity to permit the use of new material and new processes as these develop, without at the same time vesting in the enforcing officer the power to modify and set aside every provision of your building law. The granting of such