A few years ago, I shadowed a Jackson County building inspector at a construction site.
While detailing various fire-code regulations for apartment complexes, he pointed out state-required sprinklers, alarms and fire-barrier walls. The local inspector talked about builders’ required use of fire-rated sealants, caulks and putties. He showed me multiple, mandated exits doors, all marked with easy-to-see signs.
This building inspector described code as something of an organic process, an adaptive, ever-evolving search for safety.
Something bad happens; experts study what went wrong. They develop recommendations. In theory, lawmakers add new regulations or adjust those already in place, forestalling similar tragedies.
Their task isn’t easy. Our elected leaders must find the appropriate balance between consumer protection and burdensome government regulation.
Trade magazines bear out the inspector’s point, about the fluidity of our building codes; lately, there has been an industry preoccupation about preventing fires at large developments made of wood. This ancient building material is once again in vogue, because wood is relatively inexpensive when compared to other construction options.
There’s been a spate of fires across the nation, however, as these apartment developments were built. You might remember last spring’s large blaze in downtown Raleigh, at an incomplete five story, $51 million residential complex. It was made of wood.
Experts explain wooden structures are most vulnerable to fire early on, before the mandatory fire-prevention components are in place. Once finished, made-of-wood buildings are considered as safe as those built using different materials. Eliminating drafts during construction could help cut down fire spread. The push is to make controlling drafts mandatory, along with instituting other changes.
All in all, the efforts to make buildings safer for those who use them is a simple concept, a formula I believe bears repeating: You prevent disasters from happening by learning from and reacting to previous ones.
Here’s the rub: proving an actual payoff can be difficult. How do you truly measure regulatory effectiveness, when the calculation involves bad things that did not happen? It’s much easier to argue against paying costs for regulation.
I suggest those who view building code as a form of government overreach rewatch footage from last month’s Grenfell Tower fire in London. The death toll stands at 80.
Grenfell Tower burned like a candle because a flammable material banned in this country clad the building’s exterior walls. There were no sprinklers and only a single stairway.
The United Kingdom’s lack of regulatory oversight is being blamed. A “business friendly” approach has been fostered for decades, the so-called “bonfire of regulations.” Talk about an ill-chosen phrase!
Last week, Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn described the fire as “the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners.”
We’re heading in the same direction.
In January, President Trump signed an order to reduce regulations and, he said, control regulatory costs. Call it a two-for-one rule: The adoption of a new federal regulation “to the extent permitted by law” must be offset by eliminating at least two existing regulations.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in the president’s push to bolster private interests and individual responsibility, while promoting economic growth and productivity.
But he is wrong to assert “70 percent of the regulations can go,” because they are “just stopping businesses from growing.”
The president made the statements in New Hampshire, while delivering something of a muddled message: He said rules for safety and protecting the environment (ahem, Paris Climate Accord) would stay … even while he called for eliminating the vast majority of them.
Mr. President, we cannot afford your idea of savings, because the potential cost to the rest of us, the common folk, are simply too great.
This nation should heed the grim lessons of the Grenfell Towers fire. Let’s not repeat the UK’s disastrous mistake of thinking big business will police itself.
Quintin Ellison is editor of the Sylva Herald.