Friday, December 11, 2009

Standards, formats, codes - how do new solutions arise..

this is a column I wrote for a newspaper in another state (it's long since closed), appeared in a 1990 edition of that paper. The editor then used to yell out that he had a hole on the editorial page, how large the hole was and how much time I had to write a column to fill it.. What a rush... 

Codes,  jingles and new solutions

Drive anywhere in the continental United States and the radio jingles sound just like the ones at home. It's the same with building codes.

"What? Who's building radio codes? The Government?" asks my Uncle Henry who has placed the 20-odd parts of an old electric fan motor on a clean cardboard on the floor in front of him. They're arranged in meticulous arching rows, like a movie audience with Henry perched on a concrete block in the middle, all knees and elbows pointing a square can of three-in-oil at them like a gun.

"The government gets into everything these days, except balancing its budget," he says, polishing a bearing ring on his green coveralls, and re-adjusting his orange cap askew.

Radio jingles are kind of like building codes, I repeat. Henry squints at me quizzically.

I tell him it's the format. Format radio: they only place certain songs over and over again -- only cuts from proven hit-makers. The station guarantees the play list; the advertisers guarantee the money. They buy their little jingles on tap -- same notes different call letters all over the country.

The only problem is that new or off-beat music doesn't get played because it doesn't fit the format. It's only heard on college stations or on PBS or maybe on WMWV which has its own tossed salad format. (Or did back in 1990)

"Uncle Henry," I say, "Did you ever stop and consider that tucked away inside walls all over the country, are two-by-four studs, and they're all exactly the same distance apart wherever you go?"
My uncle scratches his chin, looking gravely concerned. He's not one for offbeat music, but he read this statement about two-by-fours to me out of a newspaper a while back, and he considers it his side of the argument.

One of his favorite themes is how the government, the world at large and TV in particular are trying to make us all the same. Not in a big way, but by tellings us what to do in a million little ways -- sneaky-like, they conspire to drain that spark of creativity right out of us.

I guess I 've been listening to Uncle Henry too long. Yes, there's plenty to be said for standardization, cheap goods, mix and match replacement parts. It makes things easier and often safer. There's even the comfit of that familiar jingle 1,000 miles from homes.

But when one way of doing things becomes an accepted standardm or even worse, a legal code, what happens to innovators? Innovators are a valuable natural resource, like lake shores or national forests.

Town codes are important and they may protect Uncle Henry from himself, but the may also deprive the world of some outstanding or novel or just place cheap and serviceable building technique that he might have invented. Maybe it's unlikey but who knows?

Hey, even the town of Conway plants its feet and refuses to follow some standards handed down from "above." We don't take state bridge money, according to the town engineer because if we did, we'd have to overbuild our bridges in a very expensive way.

He didn't just accept a given. He looked at the facts and really thought about them.

It's codified engineering, as opposed to creative engineering, that says tertiary level sewage treatment has to cost a lot when Ken Kimball of the AMC suggests letting silage corn do the nutrient removal for free. No technological wonders, no fancy chemicals. Just some plants growing in the sun. I like it.  It's not in the engineering books, but it makes sense.

What about those people in Colorado who've been building houses from old tires? And the guy in Arizona who used empty glass bottles filled with sand instead of bricks to build his home. When the dessert wind blows over the mouths of the bottles, the whole house must howl softly - a jug band lullaby.
You might not want that, but it's a sample of the marvelous diversity and imagination of our kind. He hasn't got a neighbor for miles, so he's a little nuts - so why not?

If an unconventional structure meets setback requirements, is screened from the neighbors and has an engineering calculation or two to prove it won't collapse on its owner (and isn't to godawful noisy) why shouldn't a man be able to build it?

Now don't misunderstand me. Much as it pains Henry to hear me say it, there's a long-range benefit in all these codes - but FLEXIBILITY is the thing that can keep them useful -- and keep open the possibility of new solutions.

We are a foolish lot, we humans. We clear cut and dig up and mow down and dam up everything in sight. We even built a strip in North Conway in the lap of some of the prettiest mountains anywhere.
But the Zone Board of Adjustment is asking the Planning Board for changes  to non-conforming zoning rules that will give it some flexibility.

Can that same kind of consideration go into building codes so we can make allowances for Yankee eccentrics and innovators and for poverty that sometimes mandates a shortcut or two?

Building codes like three-acre zoning can be used as a form of social engineering to exclude the poor. In Connecticut I heard of a family whose home was condemned and they had to move out because it didn't have plumbing. It didn't matter that they had nowhere else to go or that they had to go on welfare once they were separated from their garden and ther chickens.

Maybe that's not likely to happen in Conway, but it's important to know it does happen. I guess that's why the planning department fights so hard about the wording of its regulations.

Uncle Henry takes off his hat and shakes his saggy head. "You got to fight it," he says.  He gets out his trusty Stanley measuring tape - the kind that disappears with a clatter when you press the button on the side. "measure those," says my ornery uncle pointing to the studs inside the garage wall.

Well, the rest of the world may building 16 includes on center, but needless to say Uncles Henry is a little off, by exactly the same small measure every time on purpose. That's the way he is...