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What the Uniform Building Code really means

Column by Hal Walter

Rural construction – September 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Rising above the din of circular saws and pneumatic hammers in Custer County this summer has been the yammering of local contractors and do-gooders about the lack of a uniform building code outside the Silver Cliff-Westcliffe metropolitan clusterplex.

It’s the same story over and over. People move to the mountains to get away from something. Then they want to put in place all the trappings that made the place they used to live a nightmare. Someday those of us who remain will have to pull the nails out of this knotty legacy.

Whenever I think of a uniform building code I think of Highlands Ranch, the hellish subdivision on the south end of that cancerous growth we know as Denver. It’s despicable, but it’s a developer’s dream — hundreds of cleverly disguised crackerboxs packed tightly, uniformly, together. Give it 20 years, and Highlands Ranch will be another inner-city ghetto, with all the yuppies either fleeing another 20 miles out or circulating back to the “revitalized” downtown area.

A “uniform building code” means that someone in a uniform could come by your home and fine you for whatever’s wrong with your house. The “code” part of that three-word combo means that the rules are written in a secret language that only the person in the uniform can interpret. If you don’t pay the fine and correct the problem, your home could be condemned.

A uniform building law means that agents could tell you, among other things, what you can live in, where on your property you can put your home, how big or small it may be, what it must look like and how the surrounding property must be landscaped. They could tell you what “approved” materials may be used for construction, where the doors and windows go, how the house must be plumbed and wired, whom you can hire as a contractor, and how tall or short your roof may be.

In Custer County we currently have a few zoning rules in place that regulate things such as structure height, setbacks, and septic placement. The state inspects electrical wiring. Do we really need a stinking uniform building code?

I can understand the argument for a code on the basis of keeping new construction within certain bounds and in hopes of making buildings safer, though I know of no deaths or injuries in Custer County ever caused by the collapse of a building despite myriad structures of questionable construction. The current Custer County flap arose from a discussion about a structure that was too high according to zoning regs. Too bad we need laws to keep pilgrims from doing things like this; folks should keep their homes to a respectable height merely out of respect for their neighbors and our montane landscape, not to mention lowering their exposure to high winds and high heating costs.

I know of a house with a shiny metal roof that can be seen from many peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, as well as from several high points in the Wet Mountains, and from many places on the valley floor. Currently there is no law against mirrored roofs on hilltop homes. We just expect that our neighbors don’t want their homes to stick out like metro skyscrapers, and that these people have a certain respect for their natural surroundings. I would pitch in for paint, but I’ll stop short of saying we need a county law regulating roof reflection.

Why? Because there’s something more insidious about uniform building codes than simple conformity. It’s the idea that only certain contractors are qualified to carry out such rules.

It’s really disheartening when a popular business theme is for members of an industry to band together and get a law passed to require their services. Then, since it’s required of everyone, these providers can jack up the rates beyond what the market would normally bear. It’s like putting a price on oxygen — everyone has to have it, so you can charge whatever you want.

We’ve seen this with the auto-insurance cartel in Colorado. Liability insurance is required of all who drive a motor vehicle. You could go to jail for not having it. The insurance agencies may charge as much as they wish. They may, for whatever reason, decide to not provide insurance to certain individuals. If you can’t afford insurance or convince an agent to insure you, that’s too bad. You currently may walk or ride a bicycle without insurance, but those activities would surely require coverage as well if the insurance lobby fielded the cash to buy the votes.

I believe it is wrong to require citizens by law to purchase goods or services unless the government regulates the prices, or simply provides those goods or services at a uniform cost to everyone. A surcharge on gasoline, collected as a tax at the pump, would be a much fairer way to insure all motorists. Everyone would have coverage and motorists would pay for insurance according to usage.

But the building code is much more complex.

It all comes back to basic freedoms. Where do we get off telling people how they can live or what they can live in? I have a friend who lives in a tepee. It has no indoor plumbing or electricity, no foundation, and is of minimal floorspace. It was good enough for thousands of Sioux Indians and it’s good enough for him. But it probably won’t meet any proposed codes.

While gutting the bathroom of the 100-year-old farmhouse I used to own in Wetmore, we found a live, uninsulated wire hanging between two studs. Not code. But I expected worse.

You can drive all over Central Colorado and see places where people have parked a trailerhouse and then added on. What you get are these funky abodes that are part Tecaté can and part log cabin. Some look pretty cozy.

These aren’t uniform. But they are some people’s homes. Beats the hell out of living in a refrigerator box like a lot of folks do in Denver.

One form of yup-scale housing that is becoming increasingly popular in this area is the Earthship home, an energy-efficient house made from old tires, dirt, adobe and pop cans. Earthships, by design, are decidedly not uniform. And since most mainstream contractors aren’t building Earthships, I cynically predict these structures would have difficulty meeting code. Straw-bale houses likewise.

The point is that you, as long as you are willing to accept the risks, should be allowed to live however, and in whatever, you wish. If you don’t want modern conveniences, then you should not be required to have them. If you buy an old farmhouse, then you must come to terms with cowboy carpentry. If you want to buy a trailer and add on, that’s your call, though it seems the entire point of a mobile home is that it is mobile, poised for escape. And whether you’re building a new modern stick-frame home, log cabin, Earthship or straw-bale house, then you either do the research and pay a reputable professional to do the work right, or accept the consequences of doing it yourself. Because if you flush your toilet and it comes out the kitchen faucet, that’s your plumbing problem, not the county’s.

Last time I checked, this was still a free country. A uniform building code would make it a little less free.

After finishing for 17 years, but never in first place, Hal Walter took the prize in the Leadville International Pack Burro Race on August 4. He lives near Westcliffe, and is considering the purchase of a mobile home so he can leave quickly without packing.