Ask the Architect

Why do we have so much red tape?


Q. Our friends built a house from scratch, without an architect or contractor, and explained that there were no requirements for either, just a building permit. It was in Oklahoma, and I understand from them that other states only require an architect or licensed contractor for bigger buildings, but not homes. They seem to do OK without all the red tape, so why do we have such a strict system? They saved a lot of money, and seem to have more freedom to build what they want.

A. There are two ways to look at most things, including what makes something simpler and what makes it more difficult. I often have to research old document files for building projects we’re about to undertake, and realize that permit approvals were given in the past with much fewer drawing details or documentation. As time has gone on, there are many more requirements, as you observed, mainly because of the perceived need by government to have more control to safeguard the public. It has become an us-against-them situation, not unlike other forms of public safety. Whether it’s your local fire department, police or building department, safety is the bottom line.

I’ve observed that in many states, there’s no motorcycle helmet law. Motorcyclists choose whether to protect themselves. Is it fair that your state requires a helmet or you face a fine? Is it fair that in one state you can be scalded while showering in your hotel room, while in another state you’re safeguarded by temperature-valve controls? And why keep you safe at all? Did you ask for this? Are you willing to pay for the privilege of being protected? Are you willing to accept the expense for all the injuries, rescues or emergency transport caused by accidents?

That’s really what it comes down to. Because they save lives and keep people safer, permits and regulations are in place, and the closer buildings are to each other in cities, the more that can happen. Fire spreads rapidly, flood waters bank off one building and slam into another, and wind effects between buildings are accelerated. Since government is us, you and me (and everyone else), was there an outcry for all the regulations, or did officials just decide we needed to be protected from ourselves?

It’s a constant to question government control in our democracy, but since I’ve never seen a protest to repeal a building code or a building department policy, I have to believe that people are either complacent or compliant. Other than public hearings for zoning codes or large projects, such as a planned expressway or major building, there doesn’t seem to be much interest, except the constant complaining we architects hear, as building designers, from clients who are upset with the way the system controls them. If it weren’t for all the preventable problems building officials and design professionals see, we might agree with you. Stay safe!

© 2017 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.