I am currently working my way through the residential building codes as I seek approval to build our new house. There are forty-two chapters of the Oregon Residential Specialty Code. Not to mention additional specific codes like those for fire. It can be overwhelming and I see why some people conclude it is impossible to build a new house. As I am working my way through the approval process it has been useful to take a bigger picture view of the need for rules.
What is the point of so many rules?
It would be easy to wish away these rules and keep things simple. My architect, structural engineer, geo technical engineer, stormwater and erosion control engineers are all qualified professionals. Shouldn’t they be the arbiters of what is required? Do we need all these rules? Yes and no. Rules are very important, without them each new house would have to be designed from scratch. Each aspect considered on its individual and specific merits. This would be inefficient from both time and effort perspectives.
What is a good set of rules?
An optimal set of rules provides the critical constraints within which the solution must reside. In other words, they should prevent the user from doing anything which will create serious negative consequences. They should also direct the user towards good solutions, avoiding wasting time on irrelevant details. A good set provides the right balance of direction and freedom.
There will always be exceptions
No set of rules will be perfect. A rule should take into account the most common variables but it cannot consider all the possible variables. Nor should it try to avoid becoming unnecessarily complicated and overbearing. Given this, there will be room for exceptions to most any rule. These often take the form of appeals. This is where extra specific information is considered to reach a decision relevant to the situation at hand.
There is a danger with appeals. If you provide the option to appeal, lots of people will do so considering their case to be unique. In effect this overrides the efficiency from having a set of rules. To counteract this tendency, I recommend adding some friction to the appeals process to avoid frivolous appeals. This is commonly achieved by using barriers such as the upfront cost of an appeal or the extra time required to complete the appeal.
What about your rules?
You probably will not be designing and building a house any time soon but you are likely to set or follow rules at work. I recommend stepping back and considering why you have these rules. Do they strike the right balance of direction and freedom? Do they encourage the right behavior? If not, people will channel their energy into getting around them and that doesn’t benefit anyone.