Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bureaucracy, Part 2

didn’t expect this to be over, but I didn’t think it would be this bad.

I met with the building inspector several months ago to get his comments and see if I needed to provide anything else on the drawings for the permit to go through. As he flipped through the drawings and noticed all the unconventional details, he told me everything will go fine as long as I have the engineer’s seal on the structural drawings (the last five sheets in the set) – which I planned to have anyway.

So a few weeks ago I met with the engineer to get his seal, then dropped off the drawing set to the building inspector. The next day my engineer called me to say the building inspector asked for a seal to be on every sheet, not just the structurals. Of course the structural engineer will not seal the whole set.

So I called the building inspector:

Me: My engineer said you have some questions about the plans?
Inspector: You have to put your seal on the drawings.
Me: I don’t have a seal. I’m not licensed yet.
Inspector: Well, you’re gonna have to get that way.
Me: But this is a single residence, and I will live there. I’m not supposed to need a seal.
Inspector: You need a seal on these because there are lots of details that are not code-compliant.
Me: Like what?
Inspector: Like your roof slope; it has to be 3/12 minimum.
Me: It’s a standard low-sloped roof, ¼” per foot, with a membrane. This is done all the time.
Inspector: There’s nothing in the residential code that deals with that.
Me: So how do you permit all these buildings around here with low-sloped roofs?
Inspector: Under the commercial code.
Inspector: Can’t you get someone you know to stamp them?
Me: Generally architects won’t stamp drawings that aren’t theirs. Why didn’t you say anything about this when I showed you the drawings months ago? All you said was that I needed an engineer’s stamp for the structural details.
Inspector: Yeah, well, I’m just telling you what I need. Just get a stamp on all the drawings and we’ll be good.

I got off the phone and seethed. Really? The residential code doesn’t recognize a low-sloped roof? I wanted to call back and say, “I’m not a physicist but I’m pretty sure water has the same properties when running off of a house as when running off of Walmart. If it works for the commercial code it will work for a house! Use some common sense!”

Then I wanted to call back and ask, “You’ve heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, right? Good. Greatest American architect ever? Yeah. Tons of houses with low-sloped roofs. Would you withhold a permit from Frank Lloyd Wright?”

Below is an image of the most famous residence in the world, “Fallingwater,” by Wright. Many consider it the greatest building of the 20th century. Guess what: not a pitched roof in the place.

When I felt like I could speak without cussing (and I don’t even cuss), I told my boss about my permitting difficulties. He smiled and graciously agreed to review my drawings and put his seal on them.

From the beginning of this project I’ve had a vague desire to do everything with as little outside help as possible – outside of God’s, that is. But so far I’ve needed a licensed structural engineer, a licensed general contractor (required by the bank), and a licensed architect. Perhaps God is drawing some attention to the individualism that still infects me.

I returned my completely sealed plans to the inspector. So I feel pretty good about the building permit now. But soon I realized this was a small issue compared with what was coming. When I originally dropped off the drawings I was told that once the building inspector signs off on the house I will have to bring a form saying I’ve paid the fees for sewer and water at the site.

Besides these fees being inexplicably high (over $4,500) this task seemed straightforward enough. But the street along which the sewer and water lines run is a state road, so I was referred to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to be sure I could bore under the road to tap the sewer line. I called NCDOT and they said I would need a permit for that. Then they said, by the way, you also need a permit to tap the water line, even though it’s on the same side of the street as your property, because it’s in the Right of Way. Then they said, by the way, you’ll need yet another permit for your driveway.

I was not too aggravated by all this until I saw these permit applications. They asked me to do new drawings. They asked me to take out a “Performance and Indemnity Bond,” a special insurance policy for sewer and water taps. The checklist for completion of each permit went on for pages, and many of the items I either didn’t understand or didn’t know how to provide. Each application was a project in and of itself. All I could do is laugh. I threw the papers beside my chair and ignored them for several days.

I’ve had a recurring dream since childhood. The particulars of the dream vary, but the theme is the same: journeying towards some exciting destination and never getting there. The first one I recall was when I was a child. I was going with my family to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, and was very excited about it. We got to the park and the line was ridiculously long. We stood in it and inched closer to the park. I played with other kids in the line. We got close to the gate, but the line seemed to move even slower. I rode my bike with other kids through the woods along the edge of the park. Then I awoke. We never got into Busch Gardens.

Over the years this dream has continued to return in different forms. I’ve gone to the beach and never gotten in the water. I’ve gone to table tennis tournaments and never played. Last night I was practicing for a soccer tournament and awoke before the first game started. What happens? In each of these dreams it’s not just that I awake before I get there. The journey itself becomes so long and tedious that I run out of time. The journey devours the destination, unfolds into a labyrinth impossible to solve.

O God, let this not be the story of this house. Let this not be my life. I have prayed that this dream is an expression of fear in my own mind, rather than a prophesy.

I remembered these dreams as I sifted through requirements for three different permit applications, including several new drawings, two insurance bond forms to go with them, “in the amount stated above for the payment for which sum we bind ourselves… whereas the PRINCIPAL entered into a certain Encroachment Agreement with the DEPARTMENT hereinabove described and incorporated herein by reference… IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the above-bounded parties have executed this instrument…” Oh I did want to execute something! It felt like a labyrinth had sprung up between me and this house.

And then I got suspicious. Thank God for suspicion. Seriously? Did everyone in this development have to submit all this stuff before building their houses? It seems extreme. Or did they just not contact NCDOT before doing the work? Would I have been “wise as a serpent” to not make any phone calls? Or would that not be “as innocent as a dove”?

I called the company that owns the sewer and water lines. He acknowledged the permits that I was asked to provide and said he would sign off on them. But then I asked if this type of permit is typical for single houses. He said no, because his company has a “blanket agreement” with the DOT that allows them to approve line taps wherever they need to. I called NCDOT and told them this. They said, oh, a blanket agreement; that’ll work fine. I was a bit perturbed that they didn’t already know this. But hallelujah: two permits down.

I was also suspicious of the requirement for a driveway permit. So I downloaded the DOT’s own policy on driveways. As I browsed the introduction I came across this glorious line: “Permits will normally not be required for a single residence.” I emailed this to the DOT contact I had been speaking with and she said, oh, okay, nevermind the permit.

A three-dimensional labyrinth vanished before my eyes in a matter of hours. I can see my house again. Of course I know there will be more trouble along the way. There is already: the subcontractor who was going to do my clearing, grading, concrete, stone, and brick work dropped out, deciding the work was too complex for his crew. Anyone want a job? Or five? It is a new labyrinth (though thankfully not a bureaucratic one), but I have more confidence to begin walking through it because of how the others have been resolved. I just pray I can stay awake long enough.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Yesterday I submitted my plans to the County for a building permit. I've struggled to make this house pleasing to God. Now we'll see if it's pleasing to the building inspector.

So I have a little time again to write. I'll talk about the house plan as a whole. I think this will be the last post where I explain the design. Words fail. Included here are six images of plans from the drawing set.

Main Floor Plan

This house could be described as a “courtyard house" - the indoor spaces are grouped around an outdoor space. But the courtyard here is not completely enclosed; it opens to the street. This is a welcoming gesture. The building offers an embrace.

The courtyard is also an expression of humility: The core of the property and the house is not building but nature. The floor is earth, the ceiling is sky, the light is God’s.

The courtyard could more appropriately be called a cloister, since it was this element of monasteries that most inspired the design. This is a consistent feature of monasteries from ancient times through today. I learned this from an extras DVD that came with the film, “Into Great Silence.” I was amazed to find there a substantial section with photos and even architectural drawings of many monasteries built over the past two thousand years. (Was this just for me?) I made several pages of notes and sketches about this information. One feature I especially liked was the outdoor space enclosed by the living quarters of these monasteries. A covered porch typically wrapped around the edge of the open space too.

Floor Pattern Plan

The covered porch in my design also wraps around the entire courtyard. But the house itself wraps only around three sides of this porch. Here I’ve made a revision to the monastic tradition that I think is needed. This place is not about secluding ourselves from the world, but about building a place of light and love that everyone is welcomed into, and from which we go out to serve. It is a node of worship from which we go, and to which we invite others to come. The word “cloister” comes from the Latin meaning "bolt" or "lock." In my house this lock has been opened.

Besides the cloister there are two other major plan elements of this house - completing the trinitarian plan (of course!). One I’ve described some before: the Great Room. The other is the rest of the interior space, the part that wraps around the courtyard, and includes all the functional elements: kitchen and dining, bedrooms, bathrooms, utility, laundry and storage. We can call this the domestic space. This is the “house” of the “church house.” It has everything the house needs to function as such.

Reflected Ceiling Plan

The Great Room is a different kind of space entirely. It is the “church” of the “church house.” It is the holy place. It’s significant that the house doesn’t need the Great Room. It could function just fine without it. But on another level it is essential. If the domestic space is the body of this house, the Great Room is its soul. Everything practical can get done in the domestic space; the Great Room is about the spiritual – which gives the practical its meaning and reason for being.

Not that I imagine nothing practical happening in the holy place, or that nothing spiritual will happen in the domestic space. Quite the opposite. Church and house are joined here precisely so that they will bleed into one another, inspire and inform each other, so that the holy and the domestic, worship and life, become one.

In the ancient monasteries too church and house were married. The church often sat at the center of the monastery complex, near the cloister where the residences were. Architecturally the two places were quite distinct from each other, the church often a cathedral and the residences compartmentalized and small, like dormitories. Because of the church’s location in the middle of the other structures, it had few windows looking into the surrounding grounds; instead the windows were high, and the ceiling lofty. By contrast the residential cells open onto the courtyard on one side and out to gardens and the world beyond on the other. The church looks up, the house looks out.

I like this symbolism, so this is the case in my house too. Whereas the domestic space has a floor-to-ceiling glass wall looking onto the courtyard, the Great Room has, besides a few small windows in the walls, a 9 x 9 foot skylight looking straight up. So the largest window in this space is not actually the one in the east wall (at a "mere" 5 x 5 feet) but the one in the ceiling.

Framing Plan

In many ways the domestic space and the Great Room are exactly opposite architecturally. As the holy place, the Great Room is about perfection. The geometry is pure. It is a perfect square in plan, symmetrical around four axes. Its major proportions both in plan and section are governed by the “divine proportion.” By contrast the domestic space is organized much more loosely, deferring in large part to practical concerns. Whereas the Great Room is a single pure space, the domestic area is essentially a hallway connecting a series of rooms. The hall and rooms wrap the courtyard. The gesture here then is movement and passage, whereas the gesture of the Great Room is stasis and arrival. One is journey, the other is destination. Both work together to define the square of emptiness at the center.

Also in the contrast between these spaces there is a feeling that they are the same kind of space in different stages of development. The Great Room is what the domestic space wants to be. The one is becoming, the other is being. This is a nebula, that’s a star.

In fact their constructive DNA is the same: a 16-inch brick module determines the location of walls, columns, doors, rafters – every architectural element – in both areas. Also the huge single skylight over the Great Room seems to look back to its own formation in the three smaller skylights over the three bedrooms.

Furthering the stark contrast between the holy and domestic space is the type of construction of each. In the history of building there are two basic structural systems: post and beam, and bearing wall. The Great Room is made primarily of stone and brick bearing walls. This is the way the Temple of Solomon was built: exterior masonry bearing walls with wood beams for the roof and wood board finish on the inside. The domestic space on the other hand is structured of steel columns bolted to beams such that no bearing or shear walls are necessary.

Foundation Plan

These physical features of the house have spiritual parallels. And here is where I'm ever aware of the insufficiency of words. It's like the prophets in the Bible describing visions God gave them; the verbal descriptions almost don't make sense, pale in comparison to what was seen with the eyes. Nothing substitutes for being there. If words could capture it, there would be no need for visions.

So I'll just give some hints. Many parallels should be obvious. Others I have yet to discover myself - an experience I've come to expect if God is involved. I didn't consciously intend the three-part plan, and now I'm starting to see that the trinitarian reference goes further than that: The Great Room is like the Father, being perfect, secure, unchanging, everlasting. The domestic space is like the Son, since He "grew in wisdom and stature," and connects everything to the Father. And the courtyard, with its invisible yet present space is like the Holy Spirit. Though each element is distinct, they flow together into one.

In the contrast between the Great Room and the domestic space I see my and your stark contrast from where we are to where we should be or will be. The domestic space is the caterpillar (or better, worm), the Great Room is the butterfly - speaking both of the transition from sinner to saved and from this cursed life to the next where all things are new. Also I see the destination of a church, a body of believers, starting from nothing, formless and void, and growing in relationship with one another, loving and serving one another, confessing sins to one another, bearing one another's burdens, running towards the goal of unity, being of one mind, becoming the answer to Jesus' prayer.

Roof Plan