The Dark Side of the Building Code

Every building code is designed to keep people safe and improve their lives, but often the code imposes a negative impact on the potential quality of a place.

One example, and there are several, is the light/air part of the code which tries to establish minimum window sizes, so that humans get enough daylight and fresh air in their lives.  The NYC Building Code states, to paraphrase, ‘a bedroom is to have 10% of its floor area represented in the clear window area, 5% for fresh air’ meaning that for a bedroom of 100 Square Feet one would have to provide 10 Square Feet of glass or window and 5 SF of potential open window.

Looking beyond the fact that individuals can black out their windows and never open them up for fresh air, one can study the impact on design and the all too often resulting negative impact it has on true quality of life, as well as its negative impact on design.

For instance, suggesting that a window must be at least 10% of the area of a bedroom, also ‘tells’ developers that their windows never need to be larger, that in order to meet code they have to provide window(s) of a certain size but they need not consider larger windows.  This impacts the quality of the space and the quality of the urban environment, not only visually, but also in terms of safety. On a urban contextual level, larger windows result in safer neighborhoods. Criminals like to hide, unexposed, to prey on others. Areas with large windows make the street seem more exposed to onlookers and thus uncomfortable for thieves. On a visual level of understanding, minimum window sizes set the character within a neighborhood that only stifles the creative process, and concurrently generates mundane neighborhoods.

But what is worse is the negative impact minimum window sizes can have on a room size. Lets say an Architect and Home Owner wants to make a spacious bedroom, yet there is only so much exterior wall that can accept windows. In this circumstance, where only one exterior window can be added, that is say 2 feet by 4 feet thus offering only 8 SF, this results in a bedroom, by code, that can only be 80 Square Feet in size (8 foot by 10 foot room). This is not spacious, nor is it ample for queen size bed and furniture.  Further, it puts a financial burden on the Owner who will not be able to rent at a higher rate when offering such a small room(s).  What is ironic and ridiculous about this constraint, is the window offered will only provide ‘x’ amount of light to the human. Making the room larger beyond the 80 SF doesn’t change the amount of light the human would receive, 8 SF.  That is, just because the room is smaller or larger doesn’t change the amount of light offered to the individual, that the two, size of room and amount of light stay the same and thus should not be correlated. Of course the Building Code would say that the room ‘looks darker’, but reality and scientifically the amount of light offer the individual actually doesn’t change. This results in the effect of making bedrooms smaller than they often have the potential to be, in order to minimize the window size and thus the bedroom size, not exactly creating ‘quality of life’ circumstances.

Not so sure of this argument?  Ask any person what size bedroom would they like that has 8 SF of window area? An 8′ x 10 bedroom (80 SF) or a 10′ x 14′ bedroom (140 SF)?  The choice is obvious.

The result of this antiquated Building Code requirement is that there is a significant increase of windowless filler interior spaces, like closets, bathrooms, etc. and smaller living rooms and bedrooms, in order to absorb square footage to meet the light and air requirements. At SimpleTwig we call it ‘sponging up the square footage’ and its something we don’t want to do. Our goal is always to create an efficient layout, one that doesn’t waste space with hallways or other circulation areas, and then utilize that square footage into rooms people actually use.

Partitioned rooms:  Finally one has to ‘define’ the room as per the code, in order to meet the square footage requirements of light/air. That is, instead of making flowing spaces that could increase the light/air requirement, rooms are partitioned off in order to define their size, or one does not get approval for a Work Permit. This results in a very 19th Century compartmentalized feel to apartments in the city, very ironic since most people appreciate the concept of open plan.

What the Building Code missed: Certainly there should be minimums for light and air, but these requirements should be tempered with over all totals of an apartment, and, with cross-ventilation which is really what is important regarding providing fresh air (cross ventilation can ‘air out’ an apartment within minutes). That it should be tempered with spatial improvements that really do improve the quality of life. That the code should acknowledge the presence of LED lighting technology, or mechanical ventilation and filtering.  That people want spaces that have character, quality, uniqueness and not spaces that are determined by a code that result in a mundane selection of apartments to choose from.

At SimpleTwig Architecture, we look at it like this: when a code becomes so cumbersome that it begins to dictate a layout for an apartment, thus putting the Architect in what feels like a straight jacket, then a change is probably needed.  A change that reaffirms uniqueness and individuality while protecting humans, one that inspires creativity and the desires of the public, but one that puts the code in perspective as an instrument to help, not hinder, the wishes of the public and the creativity of the Architect to design unique human experiences.

So, our feeling is the Building Code should include incentives, a series of bonuses for doing certain things that actually bring more light into a unit, like a bonus for light shelves to reflect sunlight into an interior, or splayed windows, or positioning a window next to a wall to reflect light into a room (Rococo and Neo-classical Architecture ideas), which has a bonus quality effect of not creating a high contrast ‘dark wall next to bright window’ (this contrast is not soothing to the human mind). To have a total required light/air for a unit, but have a bonus/incentive for larger windows and openings. To provide for cross-ventilation incentive, thus impacting true air quality and energizing the design community with more creative layouts. To not hinder the size of rooms, allowing them to become larger, or more open/flowing and more accommodating to a variety of human needs. To write the code in such a way that allows for a quantitatively ‘better quality of life’ for inhabitants based on scientific data and not antiquated speculation.

While we address light and air in this article, there are certainly other code issue regarding what constitutes a basement and how it reduces available apartment stock, especially on sloping sites where the street curb can define a totally free standing floor, except on the street side, as a cellar, and, required ceiling heights for basements, understanding that all apartments on this earth need not be accommodating to tall people and the reasons why, like, some people enjoy the cosy feeling of lower ceilings. There are many nuisances of the code that have negative implications, limiting the Architect and Developer and ultimately imposing these negative effects on the dweller for decades into the future. We can do better.

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