Friday, April 9, 2010

Building Codes and "Safety"

I just spent a couple of hours trying to figure out why I can't live in my own basement. Of course I know the reason, that the ceiling height of 6'6" (less in some spots) doesn't meet the minimum for the building code, or planning bylaw, or some such thing.

But I wanted to know the reason for that reason. Why is this the minimum height, rather than some other value? And why is there a minimum ceiling height at all?

I had heard that it was something to do with fire safety. So first I connected to the UBC library VPN, giving me access to the world's knowledge stored in electronic academic journals. Then I searched for factors influencing fire safety, especially relating to ceiling height. What did I find? Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Plenty about fuel loads, fire exits, fire barriers, sprinklers, etc. etc. Nothing about ceiling height.

So, turning my back on the academic world, I did general internet searches, visiting discussion boards, planning documents, etc. Finally I found THE ANSWER.

I found a 2006 report by the Acting Commissioner, Department of Development Services, City of Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. (It can be read here.)

Apparently the Property Standards Committee had requested that proposed that the minimum ceiling height be reduced in existing residences, presumably to increase the supply of cheap housing. How dare they!!!

I couldn't wait to read the response from the Acting Commissioner, a Mr Hodgins, MA. Why can't I live in my own basement? Here are the arguments:

1. The existing minimum height matches the Ontario Building Code.

Yes, yes, I know that! One code justifies another. No doubt the Ontario code cotes the BC code, which cites the Quebec code, which cites ...

2. "It promotes a reasonable level of comfort, convenience and dignity for occupants..."

Whaaa..? Do we now need laws to ensure that people look out for their personal comfort, convenience and dignity? Will there be laws forbidding tight shoes, or itchy sweaters? This would be pretty hilarious, were it not for the fact that my family of 4 is crammed into 600 square feet while a 900 square foot basement lies empty beneath our feet. Where's the "comfort, convenience and dignity" in that? Those values would be enabled, rather than hindered, by a spare bedroom, an office, a play room, a home movie theatre with a 60 inch plasma screen and surround sound (oops, daydreaming!)

Better get to the 3rd and final reason:

3. "It advances safety and safe access for emergency services personnel who need sufficient height to undertake their work"

Aha! Now, finally we have it. No one could question the appeal to safety, now could they! The argumentum ad salvum (taking a guess at what the latin might be). Here's the argument structure:

1. Option X would be cheaper, more convenient, etc. etc.
2. But option Y would be safer
Hence, we must do Y

Apparently I can't live in my basement because of the remote possibility that a copper might visit me while I'm down there, and have to stoop a little! (You know how tall those fellas are!)

Does anybody do any cost-benefit analysis of this sort of thing? Apparently not. Since I and my family are here 7 days a week, year round, and we haven't had a single visit from the emergency services since ... well ... our second son was born 4 years ago, such an analysis is unlikely to weight the convenience of those workers higher than ours.