Back when I was younger and a lot poorer I built a small cottage in rural Hawaii. At the time I didn’t qualify for any sort of mortgage or construction loan so I built incrementally and paid for things over a period of several years on a cash basis. In the end the house cost about $31,000. The house itself is a modest 480 square foot one room affair, but it’s extremely comfortable and there’s no rent or mortgage to pay – just $740 a year in property tax and a bit more for home owners insurance. It’s a pretty sweet deal. However, I have had nothing but trouble with the county code enforcement people since Day One. I’m including photos of the house so that others can judge its middle class respectability. This isn’t a substandard Hippie shack. I’ll focus here on one particular aspect of the house with the understanding that there are dozens more items with a similar regulatory trajectory.
There is an indoor powder room with a proper flush toilet and a wash sink that are connected to a septic system. The shower is outside on the back patio. The shower is fitted with hot water from the conventional water heater plumbed from the house. The shower is surrounded by a stainless steel privacy screen and a lot of really tall tropical plants. It’s the one feature that friends and family seem to like the most about the cottage. But the county authorities said it was completely illegal.
First, the county inspector cited the raw sewerage that was being released into the environment. By “raw sewerage” he was referring to warm soapy water. The “environment” in this case was my rural back garden. The remedy was to plumb the outdoor shower with a drain that carried the “sewerage” into the septic system for safe disposal. I had this work done at some considerable expense that I struggled to afford at the time. Then the inspector was invited back to final the plumbing permit. Unfortunately he cited the project for another violation instead. It seems that rain water was able to drain into the outdoor shower and enter the septic system which was a code violation. He couldn’t have told me this earlier? Evidently inspectors shy away from proscribing holistic solutions. Instead they just look at what’s in front of them and check off boxes on their clip boards. It’s up to the property owner to understand and comply with the impenetrable codes on their own. So I covered the outdoor shower with a simple roof that prevented the rain from entering the drain (completely ruining the whole concept of a tropical outdoor shower). When the inspector returned this too was a code violation since a covered structure with plumbing constitutes a second dwelling unit on a lot that is only zoned for one unit. I removed the roof from the shower in disgust. Finally a sympathetic neighbor said he had a similar problem with his outdoor shower and solved the problem by re-labeling it as a hose bib on the permit documents. I plugged up the shower drain with concrete, removed the shower head, and invited the inspector back to approve the hot and cold hose bibs inside the little privacy screen on the back patio. In fifteen seconds he was able to check off the little boxes on his clip board and there were no more problems with the outdoor shower. A sense of relief and calm washed over me. But it only lasted for ten seconds. The inspector then said he couldn’t sign off on the building inspection because this house didn’t have a shower or bath tub… At that point I got a severe case of the fuckits and decided that I would live with the house in legal limbo. Fifteen year went by and the county didn’t say boo about the house one way or another. In the intervening years I’ve been fortunate and prospered and I finally decided that it was time to resolve the permit situation at the cottage and make the house legal with the county. Long story short – a $99 Home Depot fiberglass shower stall is currently being installed in the house at a bureaucracy-induced cost of $9,000. Did any of this prevent disease or improve public safety? Nope.
Critics might suggest that I should have enlisted the help of a professional architect to prevent or work through these code issues rather than blindly struggle through the compliance process on my own. In fact I had approached a local architect before the project even got started and he was happy to take me on as a client. His design and oversight fee was a flat $30,000 regardless of the size or cost of the house involved. I suspect this was a good way for him to filter out the riffraff. (That would be me.) Remember, this is a plain vanilla 20′ x 24′ box of a house that I ultimately built for $31,000 in total. The costs associated with understanding the regulatory process and getting things done right from the beginning would have doubled the price of this modest home and required me to take on debt that I was completely unqualified for at the time. The solution is always the same – work harder, earn more money, wait longer, take on more debt, buy something that someone else built, and feed the existing system regardless of how inefficient or pointless it might all be. There has to be a better way.