House Building, BP, and the Angry Citizen

I have been engaged in the work of designing, building and restoring homes for my entire adult life. During those thirty three years the burden and oversight of government on people who design, build and occupy homes has grown like a sponge on steroids. Way way back when in 1979 the entire building code that had to be complied with was 41/2″X8″ x 3/4″ thick. Today in 2010 that same code is split into four volumes each three inches thick. Each city has its own exceptions and enlargements to these rules, in addition to complex local zoning codes that control the mass and placement of the envelope of whatever structures are designed.

A building that took six sheets of drawings in 1979 will take almost 40 sheets today and those will also have an energy manual stapled to them specifying every bit of insulation, electrical equipment down to light sockets and bulbs, air conditioning and stoves, and everything will use the required lower amounts of energy or permits to build will not be given.

A home addition has become a very complex undertaking done in what feels like a adversarial relationship with the local building department. After the permits are let there are myriad inspections . Nowadays every aspect of the job must first be inspected and responsibility taken for by a licensed engineer, and then inspected by the building department.

Imagine the complete and total shock with which a person who lives in such a working environment greets the tale of the BP oil leak. BP got approval to drill based on the representation that they would use the double protecting oil sealing devices, then to save money switched up to the single protection devices. But that wasn’t enough cost cutting. So in order to save rental fees on the oil rig, they incorrectly loaded the no spill device and preloaded it too quickly damaging the O rings, causing the explosion, death of eleven oil workers and mass ecological destruction. A person who works at building houses can not understand how this can happen. When he digs the smallest of trenches to put a foundation or plumbing or electrical service in, someone MUST inspect it to make certain all is done correctly. At every step of the building a private and a public inspector will ensure all is up to snuff, and sometimes the public inspector will make demands far beyond those of the private inspector causing time delays and cost overruns. So naturally, a Architect, Builder or construction worker wants to know “Hey, where were those public inspectors who make my life a misery on this BP drilling job?” No one seems to know.

Then there is a disaster, and BP when they got the leases said they could handle any leak of up to 350,000 a day at 6000 feet, they had the equipment, they had the know how. That’s what they said, but no one made them show any proof that they had the equipment and know how. Now that millions upon millions of gallons have been spilled into the gulf, come to finds out BP doesn’t really have any equipment just laying around for the job and doesn’t have the know how. Oh Ooops. But a Architect, contractor or builder asks “Hey where is the grouchy building department counter person who makes me file best practices site management plans for even a 100 square foot remodel?” “Where is the County guy with the eyeshades checking on my contractors card, my workers comp number and certifications for lead based paint removal?” How does BP endanger the whole Gulf of Mexico with nary a peep of oversight and I am practically given a cavity search every time I try to get a building permit?

You kind of wonder.

This has been the nightmare of the post Reagan era. As demands and restrictions placed by state federal and local government upon homeowners, small businesses, and individuals, as the freedom of these small members of society incapable of doing extreme harm to the nation or planet has constantly eroded, the regulation of banks, multinational corporations, oil companies, agribusiness and the like have all but vanished. It seems there is no oversight of those who with one single careless act can devastate the entire economy, destroy lively hoods, and kill off thousands of acres of habitat.

When one goes to rallies and hears people screaming to get government off their back, they are talking about the regulations that are literally strangling the small owners, business people and economic actors incapable of actually doing harm out of business. They are not talking about reducing regulation upon the irresponsible multinational non national corporations who with an eye only to this quarters profits flaunt every rule of law and common sense.

When the disaster strikes, it is the small shrimp boaters, the tiny beach resort owners, the diner owners, who drown on a ocean of pollution caused by the contempt and carelessness of these too big to fail corporations.

We need big regulation and big government, but we need them aimed not at the small fry, but at the killer whales in our midst.