Regulation and Architecture

Monday, January 29, 2018

Government regulation frequently has economic consequences that are unintentional, or at least unanticipated by most people. It should be no surprise then, that, since regulations affect the behavior of individual human beings making mundane decisions, such consequences can pop up in the most unexpected places. I've noted a couple of these before, from the layout of suburbia to modern car design. To our list of examples, we can add architecture, which turns out to have a very long and rich history of such influence (and particularly so when we include special kinds of taxation as a de facto form of regulation). Here's an example from a survey by Kurt Kohlstedt at 99% Invisible:

Taxation makes these houses in Amsterdam picturesque -- and a pain on moving day. (Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash)
In 1783, Paris implemented a 20-meter (roughly 65 feet) restriction on structures, with a crucial caveat: the limit was based on measuring up to the cornice line, leaving out the roof zone above.

Naturally, land owners seeking to optimize their habitable space responded by building up mansard roofs. Later window-based taxes offset some of the financial incentive behind this design strategy, but in 1902, an expansion of the law allowed up to four additional floors to be built using the roof-related loophole, helping to re-expand its utility. Similar restrictions in other places helped the mansard style spread beyond Paris as well.
Regulation and taxation had other consequences, ranging from the picturesque through the curious to the disastrous: Respectively, Amsterdam's tall, narrow housing; English bricks increasing in size over the ages; and a deadly fire caused by a baker connecting his hearth to the chimney of a neighbor.

Many people speak of the economic consequences of regulation in vague, abstract terms since it is easy in some respects to conceptualize its impact by looking at aggregate economic effects, like its $1.75 trillion drag on the economy. This can be useful, but in order to help other individuals understand just how pervasive regulation really is, it might help to recall such concrete consequences. Even a simple tax can end up interfering with such personal decisions as how to build a home.

-- CAV

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