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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sue Lani Madsen: When good intentions turn the lights off

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis.  Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015.  JESSE TINSLEY (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

We are in danger of losing respect for the law through over-regulation.

Winston Churchill said in a speech to the House of Commons in 1949, “If you make 10,000 regulations you destroy all respect for the law.”

He was protesting the increasing regulations of industry and commerce being pushed by the progressive Labour Government in postwar Britain.

He could just as easily make the same speech to the Washington Legislature today.

I see this loss of respect in changing public attitudes toward building codes. The United States has one of the safest-built environments in the world thanks to a strong system of independently developed codes adopted as law.

Unlike the Washington Administrative Code, the building code is written by a private organization. Building codes originally were written to prevent tragedy and focused on public safety basics – structural integrity, fire risk and emergency exiting.

Then the focus changed. After the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s, our reliance on foreign oil was declared a national security crisis.

Utilities started offering rebates for conservation measures to avoid building new production capacity.

The city of Spokane building department initially refused to enforce the energy conservation requirements because they weren’t a matter of public health and safety. When the state of Washington promulgated an energy code as part of the building code system, it opened the door to using building codes as a way to achieve other public policy goals. Once it was OPEC. Now the driver is climate change.

Ironically, the energy code created a public health crisis of its own: Tightly sealing and insulating walls, roofs and windows in both new and existing buildings led to perfect conditions for mold and stale air. The result was sick building syndrome and evolving code requirements for more air flow requiring more complex mechanical ventilation. Meanwhile, building occupants just want to open a window on a fine spring day.

I asked an international expert on mold in buildings what kind of house he lived in to avoid sick building syndrome. He and his family lived in an unrestored 1930s bungalow with plenty of air flow. That’s when I stopped worrying about replacing the leaky weatherstripping on my front door, no matter what the code requires.

Our fascination with high-tech gadgetry and the lobbying of those who sell it have added layers of control requirements on buildings.

There are now code requirements for daylight harvesting controls to automatically turn off the electric lights when the sun is shining. In one elementary school with this new sophisticated system, teachers taped brown paper across the top of the windows to keep the lights on and the students on task. Actual energy use often doesn’t live up to modeled reductions in energy consumption when it collides with the human factor.

Another small public building put off fixing problems with an aging electrical system because it meant replacing the entire system to bring it up to code. Delays don’t benefit public safety. When the building owners finally had the resources to make the upgrade, it required an expensive lighting control panel connected to all the light fixtures in the building.

The only function it serves is to sweep the building and make sure all the lights are turned off at night. In 50 years of operation, turning the lights off before leaving the building had never been a problem.

Energy costs give building owners significant incentive to conserve with or without the code.

Besides being a waste of money, these are the kinds of experiences that lead to loss of respect for the law. We lose respect for the rule of law by piling on top-down regulations where voluntary standards and market pressure would do.