Monday, June 29, 2015

DAN LUDWIG'S JOURNEY Part Three of Three Parts

In the last two columns, I recounted the true story of Daniel Ludwig, a German Rumanian immigrant who came to America essentially penniless in 1955, yet was able to buy a home, build himself a woodworking shop, and establish a thriving cabinetmaking business within six years of his arrival here. 

Then, by way of example, we magically transported Dan into the present to see how his immigrant story might fare in today’s America. One immediate difference: Today, the likelihood of Dan ever affording a house was virtually nil. But even supposing he’d been able to buy some property, today’s tangle of zoning, building, aesthetic, and environmental regulations would likely have foiled any attempt to set up his own woodworking shop, much less make a success of it. Hence, the classic American immigrant story of 1955 becomes the classic dead end road of 2015.

What has gone wrong in America? 

One problem is that, rather than encouraging working class people like Dan Ludwig to succeed through their own initiative, local government now does its very best to impede them. Virtually every city hall is a hornet’s nest of regulations attempting to micromanage every aspect of what private property owners can and cannot do with their own land. While large, well-connected applicants such as developers can afford to negotiate the intricacies of zoning, building, aesthetic, noise, and environmental regulations, people of lesser means often cannot. 

Dan Ludwig relaxing at home
 in his twilight years.
If we’re serious about cultivating today’s Dan Ludwigs—the small-scale entrepreneurs who are, after all, the backbone of our economy—city governments need to clear at least a narrow path through the regulatory minefield they’ve created. One simple way to do this is to make all regulations strictly quantifiable: As long as an applicant meets clearly prescribed, quantifiable standards--whether regarding building size, noise, green material content, or what have you—they would be assured of approval. 

There’s nothing new about this idea. Building codes have consisted of quantifiable regulations for over a century: comply with them, and you’re good to go. Regulations for zoning, noise abatement, environmental protection, and practically any other area worth enforcing can be framed in the same way.

However, this standard would quickly weed out the sort of capricious building and design regulations whose uncertain outcomes only further increase a private applicant’s risk.  It would, for example, immediately and deservedly obliterate all civic design review regulations, those utterly subjective, so-called aesthetic “guidelines” that have nevertheless come to be enforced with the power of law. Quantifiable regulations would also do away with the circus of planning commission meetings, in which any neighbor with a grudge or too much free time can torpedo months or years of careful and conscientious planning on an applicant’s part. 

We still think of America as the land where anything is possible, but in truth, many things are a lot less possible than they used to be. If Dan Ludwig were still around—and I wish he were, since he was my uncle, as well as my inspiration for becoming an architect—I’m sure he would wonder why our government bedevils the very people it needs the most.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"DAN LUDWIG'S JOURNEY" Will Continue Next Week

Howdy folks--

I'm on a sudden unplanned trip, and will post Part Three of "Dan Ludwig's Journey" next Monday, June 29th. Please do stay tuned.

Monday, June 15, 2015

DAN LUDWIG'S JOURNEY Part Two of Three Parts

Last time I told the story of Dan Ludwig, a cabinetmaker who came to America in 1955, built himself a big yellow workshop in his back yard, and went on with the business of making a living. But times have changed, though, and not for the better. Here’s how things might go for Dan if he’d been an immigrant in the year 2015 instead of in 1955. 

A typical zoning map (this one is for
Barnesville, Georgia—a town of 6,755 people).
Sorry, Dan, you're not zoned Commercial.
Dan is at the counter of his local planning department, applying for a permit to build his workshop. The exchange goes like this: 

BUILDING OFFICIAL: (staring into a computer screen): Hmm, your property isn’t zoned for commercial or light industrial usage--you’ll need to get a variance (the official grabs a thick sheaf of forms and hands it to a bewildered Dan). Here’s the application. They don’t grant many of these variances, but of course you’re welcome to try.

You’ll need to contact all your neighbors within a 300 foot radius so they’ll have an opportunity to comment on your proposal. You’ll also need to give the Design Review Board complete drawings of the workshop, so we recommend that you hire an architect if you can’t do it yourself. You’ll also need to submit photos of the twenty houses closest to yours so we can verify that your workshop’s design is in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. 

An application for design review
(Hilton Head,  South Carolina, in this case)
The design review process can take
weeks or months, and typically
has to be completed before you can
 even apply for a building permit.
We’ll need a color board showing the proposed finishes for the workshop, including the roof color, the trim color, and the color and material of the windows. By the way, just a friendly suggestion regarding the color choices--the design review board likes colors that are tasteful and harmonious. You know--beiges, tans, whites. What’s that, Dan? Yellow? No, I don’t think they’ll go for yellow. You’ll probably want to tone it down a little. Talk to your architect. He’ll know exactly what the Design Review Board likes to see.

Now, this workshop you’re proposing is ten feet tall and it’s near the neighbor’s property line, so you’ll have to provide a shadow study demonstrating that its height won’t adversely impact your neighbor’s natural light. Also, will those woodworking machines be noisy? They will? Well, here’s a copy of our noise ordinance. Basically, the louder the noise, the less time you’re allowed to produce it. What’s that? Your table saw will be running a lot of the time? Well, you’ll probably need to do extensive soundproofing. You may want to hire an acoustical engineer to prove that your shop’s noise won’t be a nuisance to the neighborhood, or the staff is likely to deny your variance.

Flow chart offered by one municipality
(Winnipeg, Manitoba) showing the
process to be followed in applying
for a building permit.  This just proves
that Canadians are no smarter
than Americans.
When you have your submittal package together, Dan, you can get on the Planning Commission’s agenda. They meet once a month. If you don’t get an approval the first time—and you probably shouldn’t plan on that—we’ll carry your application over to the next month, and so on. Remember, any of your neighbors can object to your building a workshop, so you should probably do some lobbying. What’s that? Your English isn’t so good? Well, you can always hire a consultant to present your project for you. Okay, now  here’s a schedule of the submittal fees....

And so it goes. Most likely, our present-day Dan Ludwig will go home and forget about building his shop. One less middle-class entrepreneur on the roster.

Next time: Why it’s so tough to get anything built these days, and a simple regulatory change that could help break the logjam.

Monday, June 8, 2015

DAN LUDWIG’S JOURNEY Part One of Three Parts

Children in a DP (displaced persons)
camp for refugees from Baltic
countries,  Germany, 1945
(Courtesy Wikipedia)

Daniel Ludwig, his wife, and four children arrived in New York Harbor in 1955 with little more than a homemade wooden crate containing Dan's most valuable possessions: his hand tools. He had been trained as a master woodworker in his homeland of Rumania, having come to the United States by way of a German refugee camp for displaced persons. Within two years of arriving in America, Dan had saved enough money to buy a ramshackle old house with a big back yard in the little town of Concord, California. 

After he’d achieved the American Dream of home ownership, Dan Ludwig turned his attention to setting up his own shop. He filled his first cabinet and furniture orders from the cramped old one-car garage that stood at one edge of his property. His business quickly outgrew those tight quarters, so in 1961, he took out a building permit and, with the help of his friends and neighbors, began adding a brand-new workshop onto the rear of his old garage. It was a spacious, ten-foot-high barn of a building, painted a sunny yellow, with several pairs of huge doors for loading in lumber and sending out his completed cabinetwork.

Class photo of children at Schauenstein, Germany
DP camp, around 1946: No future.
(Courtesy Wikipedia)
Inside this big yellow barn, as his budget allowed, he slowly accumulated the best power tools of his trade--table saw, planer, jointer, and all the other machinery of a modern woodworking shop. Thus established, Daniel Ludwig was the model American immigrant—a sole proprietor supporting a large family and bringing his Old World skills into the roaring New World economy.

A textbook tale of America’s promise, right? A man leaves a bleak and war-torn nation, poor and without much future, for a place with greater prospects. Yet Dan Ludwig’s story, as classic an immigrant tale as it is, took place in an America now long vanished. It was a time when practically everything seemed possible, including the ability of an ordinary person without wealth or connections to succeed on hard work alone. Alas, if we put Dan Ludwig in a time machine to replay his life in present-day America, the outcome might be quite different. 

Elderly couple, one of 1,267 European refugees
arriving on the refitted troop ship
USNS General Langfitt, in New York Harbor,
October 28, 1956. Statue of Liberty at background.
 (AP Photo)
To begin with, the likelihood of a working-class immigrant saving enough to buy a house—no matter how modest—within a few years of arriving in the United States is virtually nil. Home prices have continued to outpace family income for many decades now, even though, unlike Dan’s time, most families now have the advantage of two or even more wage earners. So if Dan had come to the United States in 2015 instead of 1955, chances are he’d never have become a homeowner at all, but instead would have remained a tenant-- probably for the rest of his life.

But let’s wave a magic wand and say that modern-day Dan somehow managed to buy that house with its big back yard, just as he did in the 1950s. And let’s say he set out to build his big yellow workshop in 2015 instead of 1961. Where once he obtained a permit over the counter, got some friends together, and got down to pouring concrete, today Dan's life would be more complicated. Next time, we’ll see just how complicated.

Monday, June 1, 2015


Last time, I invoked Henry David Thoreau--”Simplify, simplify!”--to buttress my contention that the best design choice is usually the simplest one that does the job. Yet things appear to be going in the other direction. Following are some currently popular design choices that needlessly complicate our homes:

Better than a curtain?
Wait till you have to clean it.
• Glass bath and shower enclosures have become the default standard in bathrooms these days, showing up in every trendoid design magazine, invariably looking dazzling and pristine. Such adoring coverage might lead you to believe that shower curtains don’t even exist anymore. 

What’s wrong with glass enclosures? First off, compared to the alternative—our old friend, the shower curtain—they’re astronomically expensive. They’re also a real headache to maintain, since all that crystal-clear glass requires constant cleaning to maintain its design-magazine sparkle. Lastly, they unnecessarily clutter up a room that, for most people of ordinary income, is already pretty modest in size.

A ten-dollar shower curtain, on the other hand, stops water just as well and can be drawn back to virtually disappear from the scene. Nor is there any slavish daily cleaning required--when a shower curtain gets intolerably scuzzy, you can simply buy another and recycle the old one as a drop cloth. 

A minimalist triumph,
an ergonomic disaster.
• Kitchens are another nexus of bad or impractical choices made for fashion reasons. Let’s start with all those cabinet doors. Cabinet manufacturers delight in whipping up showroom kitchens with a plethora of doors: Big doors, little doors, narrow doors, glass doors—and with good reason: the more doors, the more profitable the order. 

More doors don’t equate to a more functional kitchen, however. A few generous cabinets with wide doors provide much better access to kitchen items. Even simpler, frequently used items can simply be left—gasp!—out in the open, just as they are in commercial kitchens. In short, generous, flexible storage areas beat a lot of little special-purpose cubbies, no matter how quaintly conceived.

Incidentally, with all due respect to closet organizer companies, the same holds true for closet space: The less special-purpose subdivisions, the more flexible the storage space.

Not Thoreau's kitchen.
• Faucets, both in bathrooms and in kitchens, have reached a zenith of functional absurdity. A client of mine, for instance, recently insisted on a very trendy and expensive kitchen faucet, but all she really got for her money was an ergonomic disaster. For reasons that can only be ascribed to style, the single control lever stuck out from the right side of the spout, requiring a very unnatural sideward arm motion to control the flow. Worse, instead of observing the time-honored standard of hot-on-the-left, cold-on-the-right, the manufacturer expected users to choose the temperature by rotating the lever forward and backward. Needless to say, all this was virtually impossible for any first-time user to figure out--and it’s worth bearing in mind that homeowners aren’t the only people who use the kitchen sink.

Why complicate your life in this way, especially when an ordinary faucet, a simple shelf, or a plain old shower curtain actually does the job better? I’m sure that Henry David Thoreau—when he wasn’t busy keeping his accounts on his thumbnail—would have agreed.