It was 1983, in Lincoln Park, and I was three months into my first Design/Build/Development project. My partner and I had just purchased a traditional Chicago Bungalow that had been raised on timbers in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In the decade following the Great Fire, the city solved an ongoing flooding problem by installing sewers at the current street level and raising the street elevation of most of Chicago.

Our project was the complete gut renovation of the home. Working on this project was a formative experience in my life, both personally and professionally. My partner and I acted as designer, contractor and developer, and it is an understatement to say that our learning curve was extremely steep in all three areas. We both had day jobs, and for two years we devoted every free hour to our passion project. Naturally, being intelligent young men of modest means, we found it necessary to live in the construction site, so we could afford the project’s monthly investment calls. How did that work out? Let’s just say that my enduring preference is to live in a finished residence rather than a residence-in-progress.

One morning, a City inspector knocked on the door. He took a look around our worksite, furrowed his brows, and said: “I’ll have to call downtown about this case.” Being young and naïve, we actually believed there was a legitimate problem.  We peppered the inspector for more information. No details were forthcoming. He simply insisted, over and over again, that he would “have to call downtown about this case.” My anxiety increased. I asked more questions: which department did he work for, who was his manager, etc. My goal was simply to understand the problem and resolve it.  He thought I was trying to expose him and left without another word.

At the time, I didn’t have a clue that he was merely setting me up for a small payoff. It wasn’t until 1985 that I learned the truth. There were staff purges at various City Building departments for corruption, with lucrative kickback and bribe revenue coming from builders. I was too dumb to realize I was being shaken down, and was lucky enough to have asked the right questions at the right time. This was my introduction to the “schmegulation” side of regulation.

I would facetiously argue that the both/and logic of regulation in the building industry is you are screwed if you do and screwed if you don’t. The history of regulation is typically driven by disasters. Until well into the 20th century, fire was by far the most dangerous and deadly hazard in the building world. It created large scale disasters in urban areas throughout the world and led to untold deaths year after year . Toward the end of the 19th century, there was a convergence of interests—government, insurance companies, building owners, the general public—that led directly to the creation and standardization of building codes that continue to impact building projects to this day.

It’s difficult to determine what counts as the proper amount of regulation. Regulation increases as building codes increasingly force building owners to spend increasing dollars on fire or other sections of the code.  Whether due to improved products, construction techniques or materials, the threats are diminishing year after year. At times, these codes create significant costs, and they are in direct conflict with other security concerns. For example, a required second means of egress significantly improves safety in the event of a low probability fire. But in an unsecure neighborhood, the very same egress may create an even more dangerous day to day security problem for the business or family.

How do you balance these competing concerns? My example illustrates the type of questions that good regulators need to increasingly wrestle with when developing future code modifications.  Today, the fast-paced world of technology, sensors, low voltage lighting and high-tech equipment continue to provide new possibilities of improving building safety and codes. Codes and regulations are meant to protect the life, safety and welfare of all members of society. However, when the danger comes from multiple directions, the solutions to each challenge may conflict with one another.

What is the proper pace for introducing new technologies and materials that may provide higher quality at a lower cost? How will new technologies and products impact the jobs and wages of countless tradesmen? What is the proper balance between spending billions of dollars within hospitals to maintain proper fire separation versus using the same capital on countless equally important and life-saving healthcare options?

Today, we don’t yet have the processes in place to properly analyze these types of questions. Instead, we retain archaic rules and we all continue to pay too much. Good regulation must look for resolutions that create a consistent and balanced approach without breaking the bank.

The thing is, there are many, many businesses whose self-interest is directly aligned with the continuation of the current code requirements. This is a good business sector because it consistently and predictably drives businesses into their coffers. In fact, regulatory compliance is arguably the most dependable sector of the building industry. It rarely has slow years!

Finally, in our current environment, we are also faced with the unequal and/or inefficient application of regulation requirements on projects and building owners. This not only generates significant frustration for everyone involved, but also causes destructive scheduling and financial impacts that often lead to the failure of projects, building operations or companies. For all you sports fans, the proper analogy would be when the referees drive the outcome of the game instead of just insuring the safety and fairness of the game.

So, what does good regulation look like?

Honestly, I don’t know. To begin the conversation, I might say:

Whenever possible, the regulatory environment should be structured to allow for a “win-win” situation between the private or public enterprise initiating the project and the public health, safety and welfare concerns being protected.

I am a realist. I realize this is no easy task. I grew up in Chicago and I work in Chicago, so I understand the challenges. Nonetheless, these changes will come. Asking good questions, and having a hopeful yet realistic vision of how things could be, are how to begin changing the game!

Given the holiday season, you could relate this to the classic Jimmy Stewart Movie “It is a Wonderful Life”. George discovers just how terrible life would be if he had never been born. I think the same argument can be made for regulation. It is not perfect and much needs to change, but we are much better off with regulation playing an active role in our buildings.

Have a Happy, Healthy and Safe Holiday Season!!