The difference between common sense and regulations

Just finished passing my contractor qualification exam.  So, now, I can officially build stuff.  This is supposed to make me feel wonderful, because I now can prove with a piece of paper that I “know what I’m doing”.  Well, what do I really know now that I didn’t know before.

I know all kinds of esoteric facts about how to fasten lumber.  If you want to attach a two houses to the same footer, you d)all of the above.   If you live in an area where the water table is higher than the bottom of your foundation, you d)both b and c.  And if you’re wondering about whether you can reuse ungraded lumber in a new house, the answer is a).

Well, I suppose it’s good to know what the minimum allowable standards are for everything.  And I supposed it’s good to know that I can’t make a steep and narrow stairway unless it’s to a place that nobody uses.  And I certainly don’t want to settle for a 9-foot, 10″ thick un-reinforced concrete foundation wall under GM conditions.  Because, you see, they (the experts, oh, that’s me!) know that it might not hold up well.  But, the question is, how did they find out?

Charts and tables are everywhere these days, and most common methods of doing things have been results tested.  Today, computer programs can calculate precisely how much stiffness is present in engineered I-beams, concrete, different kinds of wood, etc.  So, if you really aren’t sure about something, you can always find your answer in the tables.

I didn’t magically learn how to read the tables when I became a qualified contractor.  Fact is, I’m still almost as sketchy about how some of the table work as before.  And I didn’t magically start caring about building things well and safely when I decided to become a license contractor.  I’ve always cared, because, ultimately, if it breaks, it comes back on me.

I’m the poor sap who uses four or six 16-penny nails when just two will do.  I’m the guy who puts sheeting on everything, inside and outside walls alike, because I never know when I might want to line six pianos against the wall or hang 3000 pounds of tools on it.  I overbuild everything, just so that, if one thing fails, I have a double redundant backup plan.

I supposed that I’ll start doing less and less overbuilding as I begin to be able to qualify minimum standards for things.  At the same time, I’m already looking at my attic and planning truss designs to make the roof bullet-proof and to  de-stress the second floor.  I’ve always been inclined to calculate and invent solutions to structural problems.  The only thing different now is that I have a piece of paper that allows me to legally make it so.

Understanding building codes can help you in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t make you creative, innovative or inventive.  Those things come from all the training in kindergarten — the coloring books, the Lego buildings, the Lincoln Logs, and the erector sets.  Its the desire to build on our curiosity and experimentation that began with the first small steps.  From infant-hood, we learn by trial and error.  We learn that the stove will burn, that the sun will warm, that water will cool and that watermelon is much better on a hot day.  We learn that sitting in an ant pile is fascinating, but that fire ants really shouldn’t be observed so intimately.  We learn that two apples plus two more apples makes for really hard carrying with little hands but is easy in a bag.

Something has happened in this country, though.  Common sense has disappeared.  Seems like no one can figure out how to do anything anymore.  Fortunately for us, the government has stepped in to regulate our lives which we are suddenly no longer capable of regulating.  Good thing, too,  because we’re becoming more senseless by the minute.

OK, I’ll be honest.  It’s all about money.  People want to make more of it.  One way to make more is to spend less on materials and to spare the time to put in that extra nail.  At the same time, people and businesses are discovering that, the only way to stay in business is to try to cut as many corners as possible.

It’s and interest catch 22 we’re in.  The more regulations the government imposes on us, the more we have to try to cut corners, deal under the table, stay under the radar.  This, in turn, leads the government to impose more regulations, that cost more money for compliance, that cause more people to want to cut corners.

Too bad there are so many greedy people on both sides of the government.  If we all just tried to do what was best for our neighbors, and for ourselves, like people in this country used to do, we wouldn’t have all this need to enforce compliance.  More and more, now, it becomes we and they — rule breakers and rule makers.  The game of one-up.  Kind of a senseless game with no end in sight, isn’t it?



Filed under Economics/ Book Reviews, On Family, Health, Environment and Ethics

3 responses to “The difference between common sense and regulations

  1. As a structural engineer I would say this
    1. regulations are not there to stop people who know what there doing from building stuff, they are there to stop people who don’t know what they’re doing from building stuff.
    2. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (the greatest engineer who ever lived) said, in answer the the question ‘what is an engineer’, replied ‘someone who can do for a penny what any fool can do for a pound’.

    Great post and important points made.

    • Tried replying a week ago, but WordPress has bugs.
      Yes, but this is my point, in a backward way. Having a piece of paper doesn’t make me an expert, any more than not having one doesn’t. Today, I finished my first tiling job. Let’s just say is was school for me, and I’m glad it’s in my house and not a paying customer. But, the best learning part of it was that I had to finish what another bozo started. So, between the two of us, we put many pounds of effort into a two-penny job. But I learned the following:

      1. Fancy light sabers are no match for a good blaster. Translated: Sometimes all the fancy cutting gadgets in the world don’t beat a hammer and chisel.

      2. Always start in the middle. I always do this when working on piano actions, even though it would seem to make more sense to start at one end. I think it is because the middle is the most critical, and I want it ready fast, in case I have to cut things short. In the case of tiling, as I already knew, if you start at the edge, you’ll be in trouble by the time you get to the middle. Well, I had to work with what was there. My finished product was not bad, by amateur standards. But, a lot of cutting strange sizes to make it all work out.

      3. If you really need it, it will break. My tile cutter decided to quit just after Menard’s closed.

      4. Professionals are worth their price. The cost of tooling up alone is probably more than what the whole job would have cost, had I hired someone competent. Of course, I plan to use all the tools again, so it’s OK for me. I also learned which tools don’t work, so I’ll know better next time.

      5. The boys at Menard’s are not always experts. And, also, directions on the bad don’t make up for experience. Next time I’ll know to add a little more water and not have the mortar already set with half the tiles to still place.

      6-10. Well, I’m sure they exist, though I can’t think of them at the moment.

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