Building Safely without Government Building Codes

by | Sep 24, 2012

Most people accept building codes as a necessary government intervention. One Website states: Codes provide minimum standards for building construction in order to safeguard the public’s safety, health, and welfare. Another Website states: If we searched we could find examples of people having built things that ended up falling on or burning up other property […]

Most people accept building codes as a necessary government intervention. One Website states:

Codes provide minimum standards for building construction in order to safeguard the public’s safety, health, and welfare.

Another Website states:

If we searched we could find examples of people having built things that ended up falling on or burning up other property and/or people. Consider that engineering successes are only successes until they fail; building codes are generally updated based on real-world failures to prevent similar failures from happening again.

These are common views, but are they true? Are building codes really necessary to protect “the public’s safety, health, and welfare”? Without building codes, would our cities be crumbling infernos? Before we answer these questions, let us look at what building codes do.

While details vary, building codes regulate the construction and remodeling of commercial and residential buildings. The codes can cover virtually every aspect of the building, from electrical systems to plumbing, from they types of materials to be used to their placement within the structure. For example, building codes might require electrical outlets to be located in specific locations within a room or require the installation of energy efficient windows.

While many may appreciate these requirements, they come with a price. For example, when Houston implemented new energy standards into its building code in 2008, the new standards were expected to add about $1,500 to the cost of a new house. They may not be a lot of money, but multiply that by all of the other costs imposed by building codes and the cost of a new home (or a remodeling project) can increase significantly. In the process, many people are priced out of the housing market because of government mandates. They are the hidden victims of building codes.

Certainly, most people want to live in the safest, most energy efficient home that they can. But when home builders are forced by government edict to meet certain standards, those builders (and their customers) cannot choose alternative construction materials or methods. They are forced to accept the government’s demands, no matter their own judgment.

For example, most (if not all) building codes prohibit earth bag homes. These homes are built with bags filled with soil. Most Americans might find such a home undesirable. So? Why should those who want an earth bag home be prohibited from building one? Aside from deed restrictions and nuisance, individuals should be free to build the type of home they desire.

But if individuals were free to build as they desire, wouldn’t they construct buildings that would fall down, create fire hazards, or otherwise wreak havoc? Wouldn’t builders cut corners and thereby threaten the “the public’s safety, health, and welfare”?

Underlying such questions is the belief that private businesses will do anything to make a buck. Yet, we see an abundance of evidence on a daily basis that this does not occur. Your grocer does not attempt to sell sour milk and putrid vegetables. Burger King does not use rancid grease and moldy buns. Ford does not use balsa wood and tissue paper in its vehicles. Instead, these companies strive to provide fresh products, burgers the way you like them, and safe automobiles. If a business intentionally jeopardizes the health or safety of its customers, then it won’t be a business for long. So how does this apply to construction?

First, those who are purchasing a property must take responsibility for their decisions. They should ask questions, have inspections performed, and evaluate the background and credentials of the builder. As with all government regulations, building codes inculcate passivity in consumers; consumers often assume that if property has passed government inspections, then it must be acceptable.

Second, there are many ways for consumers to obtain information on builders. Organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and Angie’s List provide consumers with information on businesses. These resources, as well as the Internet, make it very easy to find the good, the bad, and the ugly on any business or product.

Third, since most property purchases involve a mortgage and insurance, other parties have a vested interest in ensuring the quality of construction. Mortgage companies are not eager to extend loans on properties that will easily collapse or burn up. Likewise, insurance companies are loathe to extend coverage to properties that pose a significant risk. Both usually require that a building meet certain standards. After all, their money is at risk.

In contrast, the inspector charged with enforcing the building code has no financial risk involved. If he passes a building, and it later collapses or burns down because he overlooked something, he is not held liable. However, he can hold up a project. He can impose additional costs on the builder. He can demand that the builder meet any arbitrary demand that he–the inspector–desires. The inspector can demand that windows be installed before he will approve the plumbing, or he can demand that an electrical outlet be moved twelve inches.

Like all forms of government regulation, building codes grant an arbitrary power to the government officials charged with their enforcement. Inspectors can interpret the code in a multitude of ways, and their interpretation is all that matters. The builder’s judgment, no matter how rational, is irrelevant. Until the builder secures the approval of the inspector, he cannot move forward with his project.

Like all forms of government regulation, building codes do not protect “the public”. Instead, they prevent individuals from acting on their own judgment. They prevent builders from offering innovative construction; they prevent consumers from purchasing such buildings. Building codes prohibit both producers and consumers from acting as they judge best for their lives.

You have a moral right to eat all of the bacon cheeseburgers that you want without government issuing a permit or controlling your actions. You also have a moral right to live in a house that is built to standards that you find acceptable. When government intervenes and tells you how many bacon cheeseburgers you can eat or what kind of house you can live in, you cannot live your life as you choose. Neither your life nor your property are yours, but the government’s.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at

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