SUGGESTIONS FOR LAWS GOVERNING THE CONSTRUCTION OF BUILDINGS.
The greatest risks Firemen are called upon to encounter come from the faulty construction of buildings. In nearly all large cities the erection of buildings is subject to some sort of supervision to provide for the public safety, but the laws authorizing such supervision are not sufficiently stringent, and, as a consequence, our cities are full of buildings so badly constructed as to imperil the lives of any who enter them in case of fire. The past two years has been fruitful of fatal disasters to Firemen, resulting from falling walls, the giving way of badly constructed roofs, or the falling in of floors that were insufficiently supported. No class of men is so much interested in securing proper buildings as the Firemen. The subject has been discussed very ably at the Conventions of Chief Engineers, and some valuable suggestions have been made by them. Indeed, some cities are indebted to their Chief Engineers solely for the fact that they have any building laws at all.
At the last annual convention of the American Institute of Architects, Mr. Alfred Stone read an interesting paper, giving suggestions for the construction of building laws, which contains many hints that members of Fire Departments can use to advantage. We extract as follows:
Those whew erect buildings should be compelled to build them so that they shall serve their purpose without danger to the life or property of others; that those who erect buildings for large or small public or society meetings should be compelled to take reasonable precautions to protect the lives and promote the safety of those who may assemble therein ; that those who erect buildings should be compelled to build them in such a manner as to diminish the risk, to the minimum, of causing or spreading fire, and that the owner, the builder and the architect should severally be held responsible (or any failure causing the loss of life or property by the fall of a building or other accident, the courts deciding upon whom, and to what extent, the responsibility and penalty shall fall. Let us consider what manner of act is requisite to meet these wants and to what extent it should be made applicable.
- The act should be made a State law, in order that suits under it may be brought in the State courts, and in order that the opportunity for special local legislation may be reduced to the minimum, and, consequently, little or no opportunity should be allowed to city or town councils, or to selectmen to exercise discretionary power under the law, for in the exercise of such discretion the very purpose of the law may be wholly defeated, and its most essential requirements violated to satisfy the demands of a large or powerful constituency.
- The act should be made to apply to all parts of the State, and not, as is now almost universally the case, to the large cities alone. This may at first seem unnecessarily stringent, but if we stop to con. sider that a small factory village or a flourishing manufacturing town may have its houses—be they many or few—as compactly placed as in the large city; and that the one theatre or hall or other place of public assemblage therein may be surrounded as closely with inflammable houses as in the city, and that either of them is as liable to be crammed with what may become a panic-stricken audience as any— the largest theatre in the largest city—we at once see that restrictive building acts should not be confined to the large cities. So too, the large factory, wherever located, should be provided with the same safeguards as the extensive manufactory in the large cities; in other words, where the same conditions exist, the same law should be made to apply, whether it be in the city, in the town, or in the village.
- The machinery for enforcing the law should be simple, direct and effective, and power should be given to the head of the department, created by the law, to promptly stop the work upon the building erecting in violation of the law, providing those erecting it refuse or neglect to comply with its provisions, while he in turn should be held to a strict accountability, if he be found maliciously persecuting th owner, contractor, or architect.
- Power should be given to the judges of any of the State courts to issue an injunction, in term time or during vacation, when properly applied to by the Inspector or any of his subordinates, or upon the sufficient testimony of any private individual in cases of extreme emergency.
- The penalties under the law for violation of its provisions should be cumulative and so great as to make the law absolutely restrictive.
The provision, of the State law should be such as are universally applicable and those relegated to city or town ordinances which are deemed necessary by each community, and which are dependent very largely upon local conditions alone. In this category I should embrace
- All those matters pertaining to fencing-in the building site, providing plank walks for passers-by, encumbering the highways with building materials and rubbish, maintaining lights at night, and any other provisions to promote the convenience of those who have occasion to use the streets.
- Permission to dig up the streets, to construct coal vaults or boiler rooms under the sidewalks or highways, and the necessary rules for their use, so that they shall not be sources of danger.
- Permission to connect with the public sewers and all the details connected therewith, including the discharge of water from roofs by leaders, and the manner in which they shall be connected with the system of drainage, and also the permission or prohibition of their discharge upon the surface of the sidewalks and streets.
- Permission to erect balconies, bay-windows, awnings, signs, cornices, door and window caps, and canopies over the public highways, and the manner in which’they shall be constructed, if permitted.
- Permission to erect stables ; and rules governing their method of construction so that they shall not be an annoyance to the neighborhood in which they are allowed to be built, but providing for their safe construction as to fire and strength in the building act.
- Permission to erect slaughter houses, rendering establishments, breweries, or other establishments which may be injurious to the public health, or which may be offensive to the senses of smell and sight, and rules to regulate the removal of offal. If these do not properly belong to the subjects to be regulated by town or city authorities, they certainly should not be embraced in a building act, but should be regulated by the State Board of Health.
- Rules for storing or manufacturing inflammable or explosive materials, for the removal and disposition of shavings in wood-working establishments, and for the storage and piling of lumber.
- Permission to erect coal or grain elevators and churches, subject to such restrictions as they may choose to impose.
- Rules governing or prohibiting the occupation (not the construction) of tenement houses, in rooms below the surface of the ground, in common with animals, or in other ways, unfit for human habitation.
The provisions of the law to prevent danger from fires are too extensive for me to treat upon at any length in this paper, but at some future time I hope to prepare a paper upon this branch of our subject It is important that building acts should be free from the expression “ fire proof ,” or, if used, the acts should contain a definite statement of what is meant by that expression. Unprotected iron work certainly should not be so classified, and yet there is not a building law extant in this country, I think, in which unprotected iron and brick construction are not, by implication at least, declared fire-proof. There is, however, much that can be safely embodied in a building act to lessen danger from fire, and fortunately much that will add but little to the cost of buildings.