Up Front: Feel Good Laws
July 2, 2009
What is a feel good law? A law passed by our government that has great intentions, but does little to nothing in reality, except make the politicians and a few special interest groups feel good about themselves. The ban on smoking in bars is a good example. Do they really help the public? But they sure make the anti-smoking crusaders and some lawmakers feel good about themselves, and I am not a smoker.
Proposition 65 in California is another great example of a feel good law. I was not exactly sure what this law was, but I saw these little Prop 65 signs in every retail store and restaurant I visited. The sign proudly displayed on the front door warns you that there may be cancer-causing chemicals in the products for sale or around you in the building. The sign is pretty scary, but soon you realize they are on every store and warning you about everything. I found out that Prop 65 requires a business to list chemicals that may or are known to cause cancer to the public. The state list of chemicals as of 2008 is over 18 pages in very small print. I am sure all business owners post a sign to protect themselves from potential class action lawsuits. The problem with Prop 65 and the end result is very similar to the bedtime story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.” After awhile, no one really pays attention to the signs and it was pointless but lawmakers feel good about themselves.
Construction has feel good laws too. Strapped rainscreen construction is a good example. Born out of the leaky condominium construction as traditional exterior claddings were leaking, citizens demanded something be done. All the research pointed to faulty flashings, bad windows and poor construction practices. The city of Vancouver, British Columbia, lawmakers decided to mandate strapped rainscreen for all exteriors. The leaking stopped and all cheered rainscreen. However, at the same time in Seattle, suffering the same problem, flashing and construction practices improved and the leaking also stopped. That is a real feel good law. Conventional wall claddings work, the Vancouver and Seattle comparison prove that point, not an opinion, but simple fact. Mandating an upgrade to rainscreen was to make the legislators feel good that they did something and helped to get votes. The added cost in construction is not their problem and it can be absorbed. Or can it?
Sometimes a feel good law can expand into a feel good agency. In California after the 1971 Silmar earthquake, the state lawmakers created a new agency OSHPD (the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development). This state funded office has control of design and inspection for all hospital construction in California. Sounds good and reasonable, it certainly makes the public feel good and safe. Now the reality some 40 years later has set in, as this agency has expanded, grown and dominated the health care construction industry. The end result is health care construction in California is over 4 times more expensive than any other state, even other states in high seismic regions. California hospitals are running between $600 to $700 per square foot to build, as compared to $200 to $250 in other states.
The new I codes have the most current engineering data available and seismic requirements, and yet they pale in comparison to the OSPHD requirements. Throw in well intended, but overzealous inspections and it is a perfect recipe for exploding costs.
Think I am exaggerating the problem? The situation has gotten so out of hand, many subcontractors who have worked on California hospitals will not bid on OSHPD projects, even in these tough times. Seminars were held by hospital administrators, OSHPD and the state of California to encourage sub contractors to come and bid hospital work. What? How could that be in these economical times? Why? Many have bid up to three times what they normally charge on other projects and still lose money. Why? The requirements and tolerances for installation are excessive. Some subcontractors have had to redo perfectly sound installations up to four times. Those subcontractors who are in need of work and are entertaining California hospital work, be very cautious and talk to those who have been through the process and you may change your mind.
Many want to believe the union wages are to blame for the high cost of the construction, but that would not explain why other states with “prevailing wage” are pretty much in line with traditional construction costs. Maybe California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger will get the message and save California and the tax payer precious money and get the Golden State to follow the new seismic relevant “I” code and stop making up new rules that only increase costs with no benefit. After all, other Western states have earthquakes, have safe hospitals built to the current I code and standards, all while being at a reasonable cost to the taxpayers with reasonable inspections. Now that would be more than just a “feel-good” law. W&C