DEFECTIVE BUILDING LAWS.
In no civilized country in the world is there such a culpable neglect of the common requirements of safety in the construction of buildings as in this. Careful and sagacious as our people are in ordinary matters, possessing a devotion to self-interest that has become proverbial, in the matter of erecting buildings in which to transact business or to dwell, their utter disregard of the most ordinary requisites of safety is reckless to a degree little short of criminal. This recklessness causes that insatiable demon, fire, to pay unfrequent visits, and, whenever he comes, a large sum is consumed in entertaining him. A writer on this subject affirms that during the past twenty-five years upwards of $200,000,000 worth of property has been destroyed by fire. Assuming this to be a fair estimate, and making due allowance for the increase of population and consequent increased demand for buildings, he estimates that the losses for the next fifty years—which is the average life of fire-proof buildings—will reach the enormous sum of $1,600,000,000. Add to this the cost of fire apparatus, maintenance of Fire Departments, and the amounts paid for insurance against fires, and the aggregate is swelled to an incredible sum. This is what the American people pay for the privilege of being careless. As we have frequently stated, the insurance companies are largely responsible for this. They have taught the people to look to them for reimbursement of losses occssioned by fire, and by their willingness to insure property, however hazardous the risk, at its full value, have educated them in recklessness, and instructed them in the arts of the incendiary.
It is to our legislators that we must look for a remedy. Men must be cured of their recklessness by legal enactments, and insurance companies must be restricted in their dealings. When they are subjected to heavy penalties for paying the full amount of any fire loss, citizens will become more careful, and the number of fires lessened. But what is most needed are laws governing the erection of buildings. Throughout Europe stringent laws of this character are rigidly enforced. London is divided into districts, and to each district is assigned ofte of a corps of architects, who is called a district surveyor, whose duty it is to enforce the building laws. Severe penalties are provided for those who refuse or neglect to comply with the requirements of the district surveyors. As a result, buildings in Europe are more nearly fire-proof than in this country, and the losses by fire fall far short of ours in magnitude. It is seldom that a fire extends there beyond the building in which it originates, but is usually confined to one or two rooms. During the Communist troubles in Paris, in 1870, the uncontrollable mob made numerous attempts to set fire to the city, but comparatively little damage was done because the buildings would not burn. In the riots of 1863, in this city, every building fired by the mob was entirely destroyed, and the greatest apprehension was felt lest a general conflagration should result. The large cities of this country are entirely at the mercy of the mobs, as for instance the great destruction of property at Pittsburg during the railroad riots.
It would be well for this country if a greater degree of responsibility was thrown upon our architects and builders. As it is, there is none, but the enforcement of building laws is entrusted to unprofessional men, who do not know their business, and who are, usually, cheap politicians, easily corrupted by unscrupulous men. The law should provide severe penalties to be enforced against any architect or builder who is a party to the construction of any building contrary to lawful requirements. As we have repeatedly stated, and recent fires have expensively demonstrated, our fire apparatus is not sufficient to cope with the peril to which cities are exposed by modern styles of architecture. We cannot depend upon Firemen to afford protection against an enemy that cannot be reached, and who is provided with facilities for escape by the builders and architects. We must go to the fountain head, and impose restrictions upon this class of artizans, and make them amenable to exacting laws. It is not means of fire protection we so much need to save us Irom the annual drain upon the nation’s resources, but fire prevention. Give us stringent building laws and an enforcement of them that shall make all buildings erected in the future fire-proof, or as nearly so as may be, and the nation will be richer by many millions of dollars annually.