What is the Use in Building Laws?

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By Edward Henry.

IN answering the question raised by Mr. John Beverley Robinson in the August number of The Engineering Magazine,— What is the Use of a Building Law?—I am free to confess myself one of that very large class, the public, who believe in a building law because there is one, though not as unreasonably or as blindly as Mr. Robinson would have his readers believe is generally the case. The philosophic historian knows no more delightful task than the drawing of generalizations from definitely established data. But the fascination of this pursuit is so great that the generalizer is in danger of forgetting everything else in seeking to extend his science, with the result of propounding laws that rest on too slight foundations to render safe their acceptance as general conclusions. There can be no greater mistake than the taking of broad generalizations as a basis for regulating specific instances. Hence the impropriety of applying the conclusions of Mr. Herbert Spencer on the general inefficacy of laws to the value of the building law in force in New York City. Sound as are the principles Mr. Spencer sets forth it is a mistaken application of them to argue that because some laws are ineffective therefore all must be. It is true enough that the majority is not always right; that the majority may be ignorant and stupid; that safety and learning are not to be found with the multitude. But it must not be inferred from this that it is always wrong, nor is an opinion to be opposed for the simple reason that it is of general acceptance. Mr. Robinson himself probably would reject such an inference carried to its logical conclusion, yet he takes the trouble in opening his argument against a building law to read a lecture upon the uncertainty of majorities, for no other apparent reason than that there is a certain and very general belief in the utility of building laws.

It is not to be denied that there is an ever-growing tendency to elevate the law as law above the suggestions of sense and the dictates of reason. Religion, morals, ideas, methods of thought, the social fabric itself have been changed in the evolution of society; law remains the solitary fetish of modern life that loses nothing in dignity, renown or power, in the march of the ages. But because law alone remains of the ideals of the past, because it alone has stood the shock of modernity are we to throw it into the cauldron of progress and destroy it as we have already destroyed ancient religious faiths, and as we are now destroying our older system of morality? It is not a sufficient reason for condemning; a thing that it is the last of its kind. Antiquity does not diminish the art value of a building or a picture or a piece of sculpture.

Modern life knows too few ideals, recognizes too few merits acknowledges too few precedents for any surviving power of the past to be rudely thrust to one side. Philosophically it may be the height of folly to elect legislatures, make laws and impose penalties, yet in practice this is not true. Our statute-books may be encumbered with unwise, pernicious or useless laws, the product of ignorance and folly, but the mere uselessness of some laws is no argument for the abolition of the whole code. Advanced as the modern state is, society is composed of too diverse elements—unrestrained, unthoughtful, rash elements—for it to exist without some holding influence; not a perfect, capable, always acting influence, for modern society is too much mixed and too unwieldy for that, but an influence that may be generally depended upon in the direction of right and justice. The single influence in modern life that fulfills this function is law. But the merit of the law is not limited by its being a relic of the past. It performs a duty to society apart from any question of age, a duty which gives it a hold upon the regard of the right-minded and upon the fears of evil-doers. No other element is so widespread in its action, or so closely unites all classes of men in the harmonious whole which is termed the nation.

There is thus, I take it, unquestionably a general utility in the law, using that term in its broadest, most unlimited sense. And a substitute must be found before it can be dispensed with. Individual ingenuity, individual influence, individual progress cannot take the place which the law holds in the well-regulated civilized community. In the early history of some of our States there were districts without law where every man was judge, jury and executioner combined. Civilization began in these regions with the introduction of law, and the higher and more refined and complete the civilization the more perfect and the more elaborate will the law be found to-day. There is, in fact, a direct ratio between the law and society, the more complex the society the more complex the law; the more varied the conditions the more varied the subjects with which the law concerns itself.

Now, admitting the general utility of the law, to what extent shall its scope be limited, or shall it be limited at all? Here it is, doubtless, that Mr. Robinson would take issue, for while he finds occasion to quote Mr. Spencer on the non-utility of laws in general, his special point is the uselessness of the building law, irrespective of the value of laws affecting other things. It is not less difficult to follow him in this than in the more general proposition. The building law may be full of errors and shortcomings, and unpleasant and obnoxious in practice, though the idea of the law, whatever its individual faults, may be wise and good and full of forethought for the people and their safety. No more striking answer to the query, “ What is the Use of a Building Law?” could be imagined than the fall of the Taylor Building in Park Place, in New York, which happened almost before the ink had had time to dry on the printed pages of Mr. Robinson’s article. The unexpected no sooner happens than every one knows it might have been expected. There seems to be little doubt that if this disaster was not caused by an over-loading of the floors, it was at least hastened by it. Every one knows now that had this building been properly inspected, a great disaster would have been averted, a large financial loss prevented and sixty lives saved. While the fall of the Taylor Building illustrates the need of a building law, it also illustrates one of the deficiences pointed out by Mr. Robinson. This dreadful calamity might have been prevented had the building been duly inspected; but inspection, we are told, is out of the question. Not only is the number of inspectors inadequate for the duties imposed upon them, not only are they themselves sometimes incapable of doing what they have undertaken, not only are they without the means of enforcing the decisions they form from their inspection, but the conditions of modern trade, the rapidity with which buildings are filled and emptied, submitted to strain and released from it renders the work of the inspector valueless. And so, because we live and move, buy and sell, and transact business we do not need to have the stability of our buildings tested, do not need to know how strong or how weak they may be, do not need to know whether lives may be endangered within or without them!

The difficulty of a thing is no excuse for not doing it. The more arduous the task, the larger the reward and the more satisfaction one obtains from one’s exertions. Modern science and ingenuity are not baffled by tremendous obstacles, and so simple a question as the variable load of a building offers no reason for the repeal of all building laws. Neither is the insufficiency of inspectors a more potent argument. It may be a costly process to inspect properly all the buildings of a great city like New York, but he would be a rash man who would name the sum that had better have been kept in the city treasury rather than have the high-priced inspection that might have prevented the Park Place disaster.

There is doubtless a large class of subjects with which the law should not concern itself. Laws regulating the details of private and personal existence are not only notorious failures, but these things are admitted generally to be beyond the proper jurisdiction of legal restraint. The unsuccessful history of Prohibition in those States which have incorporated this principle in their laws is too well known to require more than simple mention here. But while questions of private morals may best be left unregulated by law, there is less reason to doubt the efficacy of laws having for their object the public safety and health. They may not always be good laws or wise ones, nor the best that might have been devised, but at foundation they typify the care of the state for the general welfare; they exercise in public life the watchfulness which parents show for their children.

This is the reason for the building law; this its use and its utility. It was not devised for the annoyance of builders or the distraction of architects. It was not meant to create hardships, nor to interpose obstacles in the production of good work. Its object was not to add to the cost of buildings, to limit their artistic qualities, to retard the development of architecture or to render its practice a thing to be avoided. It may provide places for the politician, but what office-creating law does not? It may have rendered it possible for some prejudiced authorities to make trouble for unpliant, unfavored architects and builders. But whatever unwise provisions may be involved at foundation, the law was devised for the public good. It is a misfortune of human nature, whether in a civilized or uncivilized state, that a very large class, in seeking their own gain, are utterly indifferent as to the effect of their operations upon others. The greed for gain, the inextinguishable desire to get the better of one’s fellow-men, is so deeply rooted in the average human breast, that were there no restraint upon actions affecting the general welfare there could be no permanent social fabric. The civilization of Europe in the Middle Ages began with the reign of law in place of the reign of the lawless; when instead of numberless free-acting barons and nobles there was substituted the restraint of a central power, the law, the realm. We have no robber-barons now, no public highwaymen living in castles and dealing with other people and other people’s property and rights as they would not themselves be dealt with. The history of building in America, however, abounds with proofs that the class of men who seek their own aggrandizement, totally oblivious of the necessities and just claims of others, have not yet been extinguished. Nor has general honesty reached that point of development where men may always be trusted to do right without being constrained to do it, or without having penalties attached for wrong-doing.

To put it bluntly, we require building laws, if for no other reason than that we have dishonest, wicked builders who think more of putting dollars into their pockets, than they do of the safety of human life, of the comfort and welfare of the community that provides them with the means of gaining a livelihood and security for their own goods and chattels. It is a dreadful thing to say, but not so dreadful as to have it actually exist in such enlightened centres as our great cities. It is needless to specify examples. Mr. Robinson himself does not hesitate to hint broadly of dark tales he might tell were he not restrained—shall I say it?—by professional etiquette. Not only does the history of building in America show the necessity for a building law—the financial loss occasioned by the collapse of ill-built structures, the danger to which they expose life and limb, the menace to health of improperly constructed houses—but the most unobserving critic can imagine how many more dangerous structures would be put up were there no limitations as to what any builder might do.

There is no sounder, wiser or more beneficial provision of the law than that which prohibits the erection of wooden buildings in crowded city limits. It is not to be supposed tor a moment that the abolition of these tinder-boxes in the business parts of New York City would have been obtained by voluntary action on the part of owners and builders. It is easy to recognize the value of such a movement, to point out the increased returns to be had from more permanent and more expensive buildings; all builders and owners are not devoid of wise perceptions nor unable to recognize what would most benefit them. But a city is an agglutination of hybrid elements, wise and unwise, good and bad, careful and careless. Concerted action among thoughtful, far-seeing men may accomplish much good and prevent much harm, but the thoughtless cannot voluntarily be made thoughtful, nor can they of their own free will be brought to work for others’ good when they see no benefit to themselves by so doing. In the multitude of elements forming the modern city there will always be found men who would follow what they conceive to be their own good, or convenience, no matter how harmful it might be to the general public. It is human nature to do so, and human nature, while often a delightful study to the philosopher, is quite as often a most undesirable and awkward public property. The law cannot make men wise and considerate, but it may, under proper administration, reduce to a minimum the harm which the selfish and inconsiderate are almost certain to do without reasonable restraint. The building law may not always give us good buildings or safe ones, nor may it be all it should be, but it diminishes the number of dangerous structures and to this extent it makes life safer.

I am arguing for the utility of a building law on general rather than specific grounds. There may be danger in this course, for while a thing may be generally right and desirable its component parts may be such as to render it quite the reverse. But the faults of any code of building laws are no reason for their wholesale abolition. Though the law aims to be perfect, to produce an improved state instead of a bad one, there are few laws which may not be improved upon in the light gained by experience through succeeding generations. The building law of New York was irksome and misunderstood when it first went into effect. It was something new and strange; it imposed conditions, and defined responsibilities hitherto unknown or exercised to but a limited extent. Limitations comparatively small, which to-day would scarcely be felt, were, when first put into effect, sources of much annoyance. This is still the case in some particulars and some of Mr. Robinson’s observations on this point are right and just. But these features call for improvement, not for unwise, promiscuous condemnation.

The building law, like all other experimental laws, is freely open to criticism. It is but an experiment, slowly making its way and gaining fresh and needed improvement from the criticisms it daily receives in practice. Its present shape is not stationary; it is not something that has come to stay fixed for all time. The law may be the least changeable thing in civilized society, but it is not unsusceptible to fresh conditions. It is not readily altered, it is not subject to the whims of fashion, the caprice of the day, the variable pleasure of the people. It is as deliberate in its movements as it is solemn in purposes. Yet it does not on this account less admirably perform its peculiar functions nor is it the less useful to society. The New York building law of to-day is the product of several changes and additions. Beginning as a separate law in 1860, it has been amended from time to time first because it was imperfect, and then because new conditions of architecture called for it. Both these reasons, Mr. Robinson maintains, are sufficient ground for abolishing the entire code. On the other hand they would seem to afford a basis for its retention.

Architecture is rightly termed an inventive science. The ever-changing and manifold requirements of modern life, its ceaseless activity, its persistent inventiveness are constantly imposing fresh conditions upon the architect which it is the province of his finest skill to solve in the best way. The structural and business requirements of every edifice present quite enough difficulties for the architect without his task being further impeded by artificial legal restraints. Yet, although Mr. Robinson cites the swift change of modern life as an argument against the building law, he points out no instance where it has hindered the progress of architecture nor prevented the latest results of progress from being incorporated in the newest structures. The most advanced, most complete and finest buildings in New York, the World, Times and Union Trust buildings, the new hotels on Fifth Avenue and many others that might be named—I speak of construction and arrangement, not architectural effect, which by no means goes hand in hand with constructive progress—have been erected under the present building law. With all its defects, a code that permits the erection of such phenomenal edifices certainly cannot be condemned as a wholly worthless relic of the past.

The building law has, therefore, a real use, and results in good to the community. The law of no city, perhaps, accomplishes all it should, but such utility as such a law possesses will be increased by its extension on present lines, rather than by a withdrawal from the progress already achieved. People are realizing more and more the necessity for stricter building laws, sharper inspection, less easily evaded penalties for violations. Sanitary science, for example, though it has made wonderful progress in the last few years and has been the subject of some judicious legislation, requires still a much wider application, particularly with respect to old buildings. Fire-escapes and emergency apparatus require much more careful treatment and much more intelligent study than have yet been bestowed upon them. Private dwellings are very generally without means of escape in fires. A few years ago, Philadelphia was horror-stricken at a fire in an ordinary dwelling in which several members of a well-to-do family were burned to death because they could not get away from the building. In all large cities fire escapes—hideous things, the bugbear of the architect—are compulsory, nominally if not actually, upon tenement houses, hotels, factories and all public buildings. Even with the present regulations, a fire in a crowded tenement is a dreadful thing, full of danger and horror, but the tenement supplied with the most insufficient of fire-escapes is far from being the deathtrap that many a small dwelling is. The rarity of fires in the dwelling-house districts is simply a fortunate circumstance that has nothing to do with not being prepared for an emergency. Our tall office buildings are supposed to be fireproof and they doubtless are as nearly so as modern means permit, but the fire last year in the Western Union Building in New York showed that they are not incapable of proving dangerous when the flames have once made headway.

It is not my purpose to propose improvements in existing building laws, that being a task for abler hands, but I cannot refrain from pointing out one or two things which will never be bettered by voluntary action and which call for the enforcing power of the law to remedy. The building law is to a great extent supplemented by the regulations of the insurance companies, but these do not all act under one code of rules nor should their requirements perform the functions of public laws which properly have universal action. The state owes a duty to its citizens not less than they to it, and the proper care of the people’s interests should not be handed over to corporations, which, however carefully they are managed, however philanthropic their officers, have at best but their own interests and the declaring of dividends at heart. This is their raison d’etre, not a constant concern for the public’s safety.

Nor because there are corrupt officials in the building office is there a reason for the repeal of a law designed and operating for the public good. It is perhaps more wicked to tempt than to fall before the devices of the tempter, but the public conscience need not blame itself because its demand for a building law supplies places for officials who sometimes betray their trust and who refuse to perform the duties of their office without being “ seen.” There is a remedy for such things, a reward for such people that is not to be found in the removal of the law, and it ill becomes those who have personal knowledge of corruption in the building office to call for the law’s repeal on broad moral grounds or because they are afraid for the sins of other men. If there is to be a moral argument for or against the building law by all means let it be a sound one resting on a moral basis.

  • Edward Henry, “What is the Use in Building Laws? Wherein they are Useful—A Criticism,” Engineering Magazine 2, no. 2 (November 1891): 238-246.