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Building to Code


It turns out post-structuralism has a lot to answer for when it comes to our current governance crisis. While not exactly calling for anarchy (or what we thought was its opposite, authoritarianism, and now realize might be its accomplice), the complete rejection of modernist essentialism and moral universalism appears to have resulted in a kind of mindless and bigoted relativism that threatens the bricks and mortar of pluralism and liberal democracy. We are seeing how corruption renders any philosophical debates about whether or how what “is” becomes what “should be” moot, for example, (credit to Hume for at least bringing the dichotomy into focus) by failing to consult reasoning at all.

While Trump has been dismantling the government, we have been restoring an 1850’s mixed use building in St. Louis. This process has led me to think quite a bit about the reasoning behind municipal codes, building codes specifically, and the role of social rules. As we’ve hauled literally tons of rubble and debris, repaired lath and re-plastered crumbling walls, taught ourselves how to tuck point river stone, filled cracks and puttied holes, laid all new floors using table tops and cabinet fronts left behind by a hoarding furniture-maker (and built kitchen sink cabinets and bathroom vanities out of the same material), I’ve had plenty of time to think about the values behind the codes.

And codes do represent a value system, no matter how inarguable it might seem for spaces to be safe, enclosed, and weatherproof. Those values represent the framework by which buildings (and their renovators) are judged. The building must be stable. This means straight walls, properly-sized supports, durable materials. The building must also be safe as in protected from fire, flood, and predictable natural forces (ingresses and egresses, proper wiring, well-designed plumbing, proper venting of gases, etc.) The roof needs to protect from wind and rain, the walls have to be sealed from insects, birds, and rodents, and all the doors and windows have to work properly.

Over time, geography has come to play less and less of a role in determining how a building is designed. Our building is constructed of multi-sized flat river stones quarried locally, stacked in relatively even rows with irregular lines of mortar between. Lowes doesn’t sell construction-grade river stones because there is now no standardized source, no money in producing them, no building standards to guide their use. In other words, capitalism plays the central role in these coding mechanisms, determining not only what is straight and safe but which products will achieve related values such as smoothness, uniformity, congruity, symmetry, economy, and convenience.

Our process, performed collaboratively and by “amateurs” in the trade, asked us to parse these values and weigh them for relevance, methodology, and reason. We fulfilled the building codes partially because we had to in order to receive “permission” in the form of an occupancy permit to live here. In some cases, we eschewed the extrapolated codes: our walls aren’t all smooth, our floors are certainly not uniform, our methods were far from convenient. Yet, in many, maybe even most cases, our values exceeded those of the code. We considered ecology, focused on esthetics, used the tools and materials that were available to us, favored human resources over economic ones.

This, it seems to me, is the essence of bioculturality. Some codes govern the common good and must be adhered to. They follow a course of reason that has important implications for both what “is” and what “should be.” Sometimes these rules need to change or bend or even be discarded, but, ideally and ethically, our practice of reasoning and consideration prepares us, as individuals and society, to do so. At the same time, the rules that govern in universal ways (everyone must accede) are, by definition, the lowest common denominator. We can always do more. We might even do better.

“Post” post-modernism doesn’t have to mean irrational and normative moral relativism. Instead, it asks us to recognize that the way we live in the world is what the world becomes.