“Travelling Codes.” Nigel Isaacs: Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, Victoria University of Wellington

The following article is taken from the latest HPA Oculus Newsletter (2017-07).

Travelling Codes.

In March 1921, American mining engineer Herbert Hoover became US Secretary of Commerce. One of his early actions was to establish a "Building Code Committee" with a goal of improving the productivity of house construction. In July 1922 the Committee reported its “Recommended Minimum Requirements for Small Dwelling Construction”, a widely distributed, compact booklet.

In New Zealand, also in March 1921, a recent graduate of the University of Auckland was appointed as the first Engineer of Forest Products in the new Forestry Department. In 1923, A.R. (known as Pat) Entrican was set to work reviewing the many building by-laws with a goal of supporting the more efficient use of native timber. He soon set up a national conference to develop a standard national building by-law which in Wellington in June 1924.

As a model for the NZ conference, Entrican used the US publication, modifying it to suit NZ conditions. The NZ Conference recommendations were widely distributed and generally adopted, even before the 1931 Napier earthquake.

Fulbright NZ provided an award, which with support from Victoria University of Wellington, permitted the exploration from November 2016 through mid-February 2017 of the USA code archives. This involved travel to West Branch, Iowa (the birthplace of Herbert Hoover and site of his presidential archives); St Paul, Minnesota (the home of an architect on the committee); Madison, Wisconsin (Forest Products Laboratory); Washington D.C. (National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress and the National Institute of Science and Technology which had hosted the committee); and San Francisco (Herbert Hoover Archives).

Papers in these archives revealed the background research and discussions. These supported the creation of the reportedly first code to provide not only minimum acceptable requirements but also how to “do better”. The records show the care taken by the committee and its supporting agencies to obtain quality research data to support their work as well as their extensive industry and code official consultation. They also show the political lobbying from sectors of the industry unhappy with the code recommendations.

The 1922 code coverage was wide, even in its mere 18 pages of code and 70 pages of supporting appendix. Topics included not only the obvious fire and structural issues, but also moisture control, thermal and acoustic insulation, snow and wind loads, earthquakes and vermin. Interestingly the 1924 NZ code did not even mention earthquakes or thermal insulation.

Although not widely recognised today, the 1922 code is the direct ancestor of the modern “International Building Code” used throughout USA. Over the coming months, the development of the USA code and its links to the NZ code will be further explored.

Nigel Isaacs is a Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, Victoria University of Wellington Nigel is also a Committee member Historic Places Wellington and Historic Places Aotearoa.

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