Rules for the Uncomfortable

I'm a licensed civil engineer. That means I have a four year education in civil engineering from a certified university, I passed a day-long exam on the fundamentals of the profession, I worked under the supervision of a licensed engineer for four years, passed a rigorous engineering examination and now pay a bi-annual fee as well as take continuing education.

That process excludes all but a handful of people from practicing municipal engineering. Even those who would unquestionably be competent at it — say, those who have an engineering degree, just in a different field — are barred from doing so. Earlier this year, we shared with you the story of Mats Järlström, an electrical engineer living in Beaverton, Oregon who was fined $500 by the state licensing board for calling himself an engineer (he actually is an engineer, just not a civil engineer) and for providing a critique of the timing of yellow lights in an antiquated signalized intersection. According to the state of Oregon, he was not allowed to do this even though his observations and calculations suggested more competence than those licensed to do them.

What are we to make of this? It's clear that we don't want critical infrastructure systems designed by people not competent to do so, but how much of a civil engineer's job involves things that, if not done competently, could result in injury to others? The answer is: shockingly little.

So the next question should be: how much does the high barrier to entry cost us as a society? It (arguably) ensures a base level of competence, but who is excluded from participating? How much more does this exclusion cost society? How many projects are stymied based on the requirement for a professional license? I don't have the answer to any of this, but is anyone else even asking the questions?

Architecture Magazine recently reported on a man who is going to prison for at least two years, possibly up to seven, for signing architectural documents without a license. Nobody was hurt or injured. There is no allegation of incompetence. He just didn't have a piece of paper issued by the state before he signed the documents.

I admire Architecture Magazine for their take on the whole thing, which was a divergence from the typical pro-licensing outrage feigned by most industry publications. From the article:

Newman only made $200,000, or less than $30,000 a year, doing that. The citizens of New York can sleep safe at night, however, in the apartment buildings that his Cohesion Studios designed, though: code officials have signed off on all of his buildings and subsequently found no violations.
This whole case raises the question of whether it mattered that Newman was not licensed. From a practical standpoint, it does not appear to have. He was able to get his buildings approved by all officials and they are all still standing. 

Over the last two weeks, I've been in Akron (OH), Santa Ana (CA), Pensacola (FL) and Detroit (MI). Each of these places have parts of their community experiencing success and renewal but they also have large swaths that are struggling. 

As I spoke to people in each of these places about their struggles, time and again the burden of regulatory compliance came up. Not just permitting — which was a frequent complaint — but the entire process of complying with building codes and engineering regulations.

One person was ready to move ahead with rehabbing an old building until the building officials told them a new sprinkler system was required. Another was looking to do an expansion until they were told they would need a dozen more parking spaces. Still another was told that converting a single family home to a duplex was not allowed in that zoning classification. 

These were all in neighborhoods absolutely starved of capital. These were places that were in seemingly terminal decline and were desperate for investment. It was baffling to me how we could allow so many roadblocks to be put in the way of bringing these places back.

The team in Akron on the back porch of a house rehabbed by The Better Block. This neighborhood desperately needs investment and it's so ready for it.

The team in Akron on the back porch of a house rehabbed by The Better Block. This neighborhood desperately needs investment and it's so ready for it.

Then again, it's really not. Take the sprinkler system issue, which I've seen come up dozens of times. Someone buys an old building in a declining area with the hopes of breathing some life back into both. They roll up their sleeves and get to work figuring it's just going to be a matter of time and effort. Then the building inspector shows up and tells them they need a six-figure sprinkler system installed and inspected before they open. Before one penny of revenue comes in, they have to invest more money than they hope to net in a year, maybe more. 

How did such a regulation happen? Let's assume the best intentions of everyone and understand that there have been instances of people getting trapped in commercial buildings and killed by fire. Let's also acknowledge that there is no association of people in declining neighborhoods looking to rehab old buildings, but there are plenty of lobbying organizations for fire safety, from public unions to the manufacturers of sprinkler systems. In a benefit versus cost analysis for requiring sprinklers, how many people were there arguing about the cost?

Consider a different realm: automobiles. We now have airbags standard in all new vehicles, but that didn't used to be the case. Auto manufacturers fought those requirements and their most potent argument was that it would drive up the cost of a new car. Their resistance delayed action for years.

A sprinkler system for a small commercial building can easily run into six figures while airbags add just a few hundred dollars to the cost of a car. You might think that, given that cost discrepancy, we must have a national epidemic of death by fire in commercial buildings. Over 30,000 people a year die from traffic collisions in the United States yet total fire deaths in 2015 (residential and commercial) in America were just 3,362. 

If we subtract from that total the death from home fires as reported by the National Fire Protection Association (2,650 in 2015) and then assume the rest are commercial fires, that's just 712 people we could potentially save with commercial sprinkling requirements.

How many people get in their car and drive to the grocery store because their corner grocery is closed and nobody can open one? How many people must drive to the pharmacy? The hardware store?

How many lives are destroyed in neighborhoods in decline where there is seemingly little that can be done to bring them back, despite a strong desire to do so?

I comfortably sit here with my engineering license and recognize that these questions are rather abstract. Of course I want things done right. How could we, in good conscience, demand anything less? And if that means you must pay extra to my colleagues, or someone in some other licensed profession, to perform this public service for you, well that's just the price of a civilized society.

Here's what should happen if we're sick of being comfortable.

We're not going to repeal these requirements. There are too many people — and too much money — lined up that would resist it. You'd never get beyond the "it's for the children" argument so just don't do it. We need to be tactical.

If I'm running a city where there are neighborhoods struggling for investment, here's what I put in place.

First, I recognize that the number of pages of codes and regulations that apply to buildings being constructed in my city run into the tens of thousands. That many regulations means there are essentially no regulations; there's an exception everywhere for every rule. Let's work with them.

Second, I impress upon the entire regulatory bureaucracy that the future payment of their salaries — the continuation of their employment — not to mention the payment of their pensions, is dependent on the financial health of the city. We can't accept decline and we all need to do every creative thing we can to push back on it. 

Third, I say to anyone looking to rehab an old building in a struggling neighborhood: we are your partner. We are not going to have any permits or inspections that are going to stop you from opening your business. Instead, I would use a tactical approach to get things up and running and brought into compliance.

The permit process would start with a notification of the intent to open up. That's it. No plan submissions. No other requirements. We'd send out our site inspector to walk through the old building and make sure a basic checklist of essentials was met — essentially that the roof wasn't about to collapse on people, that there were two exits, that there weren't arcing electrical wires next to a stack of gas cans — and then we'd issue a provisional license. Hang that provisional license on the door; we're going to give you six months to get up and running.

After six months, we go out and then start the secondary application process. At this point, you have a better sense of whether you idea is going to succeed or fail and we have a better idea of how your place is going to be used. Do you need those parking spaces? Are there any problems with the operation? At this point, we'd have the building inspectors go through and put together two categories of items: (1) urgent and potentially harmful and (2) long term concern. 

The urgent, you're going to need to come up with a plan to get it done. Once you complete them, that provisional license can come down and the public will know you're for real. Congratulations. 

For the long term concerns, we need to work within your revenue stream to get you into compliance. We don't want more than 5% of your revenue to go towards compliance costs, but so long as there are things to address — that new sprinkler system, for example — we're going to require you to put at least that amount into an escrow to deal with it.

Let's make your business successful and use that success to make your building successful. It's not working the other way around.

And when the permit police from outside the community come in to demand that your town follow their prescribed approach, have them put on their shoes, walk to the neighborhood with you and meet the people you are impacting. Ask them to become less comfortable.

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