Fire, Death, Disease and Vibrant Laneways: A Short History of the Building Code

On Monday I was asked to talk about the Building Code in a laneway for the Sydney Architecture Festival.  I was part of a walking tour, consisting of popular local entrepreneur Simeon King, Martin O’Sullivan of Grasshopper/Small Bar Association and Tim Horton, Registrar of the NSW Architects Registration Board. Here’s a picture of Tim and myself having remarkably different emotional responses to a laneway.

Nerds Gone MildFor those who are interested, here’s the text from my talk on the Building Code. Thanks to everyone who came along – and thanks to the Festival for a great event:

Today we’re accustomed to thinking about laneways as the province of small bars, parklets and novelty street furniture campaigns. This is stark contrast to their more traditional role as wretched, miserable firetraps, full of impoverished people, rats, disease and human shit, which is what I’m going to talk about today.

A good starting point is 1854, when William Jevons arrived in Sydney from England to take up a job with the newly formed Mint. During his down time, he walked the streets writing his ‘Remarks Upon The Social Map of Sydney.’

Today, Temperance Lane is surrounded almost uniformly by retail and offices, with a couple of restaurants and bars. When Jevons visited this area, he found “wholesale stores or by petty manufactories”, “the residences of labourers, or small tradesmen or artizans”, “smiths shops, timber yards, & similar places of business”.

If there’s any planners here, I’d be interested to know if timber yards and smiths shops are still permissible uses.

Jevons wrote particularly about the houses around here, noting:

The residences in this part are mostly of very low character usually consisting of small two or three roomed cottages of considerable age, & now much dilapidated. Bricks are the most common material but perhaps one fourth part of the whole are built of weatherboards & are in very bad condition.

Toilets, he remarked, were “very scantily supplied in this neighbourhood.”

In the 1870s, the conditions had worsened, leading to a survey by the health department and several newspaper articles. In his book Leviathan, John Birmingham recalls a Herald article in which journalists visited a slum down Abercrombie Lane. The found a cab driver called Ryan living with his wife and three children in a small room in which:

There were no windows to let through a breeze and consequently the atmosphere was dominated by the piles of excrement which lay on the floor. Ryan and his wife were both drunk, the latter sitting on a wooden box with a child in her arms, mother and child completely naked.

When they tried to enter the kitchen, they stirred a vast hoard of fleas.

The fleas would later prove the most significant thing. On January 19, 1900 Arthur Payne, living at number 10 Ferry Lane, became the first victim of Sydney’s last outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, which killed 103 people.

Notably Abercombie Lane now hosts a small bar, and the plague broke out just around the corner from the Walsh Bay Fratelli Fresh.

 This is the city our building, planning and licensing systems were built to manage. Contrary to today’s focus on creativity or culture, its drivers were a fear of fire and disease.

For example, the origins of our building code date back to 1212, when fire broke out in London, killing 3000 people. Afterwards Mayor Henry Fitz-Ailwin moved to ban thatched roofs and produced regulations encouraging the use of stone in house construction.

London has a long and prestigious history of burning down. Boudicia burnt it down in 60BC, it was virtually wiped out again in 122AD, slowly rebuilt only to burn down again in 675, 798, 982, 989 and 1087, twice in the twelfth century, and four times in the thirteenth.

Of course, when we think of London burning, we think of the Great Fire of 1666, which burnt for four days and made about 90% of the city’s population homeless. There were less than a dozen recorded deaths, partly because the fire incinerated human remains, and partly because 100,000 people had died the year before when the Black Plague hit the city.

The Great Fire started in a bakery on what’s now known as Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. Originally it was called Offal Pudding Lane, because of the volume of slaughter house refuse that fell off carts going from the butchers in Eastcheap to the garbage barges on the Thames.

London did have a system of pipes for fire fighting, fed from pumps and waterwheels. But when the fire actually broke out, people panicked and, by the time they organised themselves, the waterwheels themselves were on fire.

The fire moved quickly for two reasons. Firstly, most of the houses were built of wood. And secondly, they were on streets so narrow there were no firebreaks. Maps of the disaster show it stopped at the Wall at the City’s east, the river and just by the Tower, where the garrison used gunpowder to frantically demolish buildings, and create emergency firebreaks.

The fire combined with the Black Death to produce a raft of laws that remain inherent to our cities. When the plague broke out, no one understood it was spread by rats and fleas. Asides from prayer, the response focused around isolating the sick, preventing people from gathering and trying to reduce the volume of filth on the streets.

The definitive book on this is Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, written in 1722 but built from his uncle’s journals from 1665.

He cites the Orders developed by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London as they frantically tried to control a disease they didn’t understand.

These include the appointment of Parish examiners – today’s health inspectors, directives for rakers – the precursor to today’s garbage and sanitation workers, and a series of “Orders concerning Loose Persons and Idle Assemblies”, including what we’d now recognise as place of public assembly regulations.

The council declared:

That all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, Buckler-play, or such like Causes of Assemblies of People be utterly prohibited, and the Parties offending severely punished by every Alderman in his ward.

Another directive reads:

That all publick feasting, and particularly by the Companies of this City, and Dinners at Taverns, Alehouses, and other Places of Common Entertainment be foreborn till further Order and Allowance.

A lot of people thought the plague was a curse inflicted by God because Charles the Second had done outrageous things like lift bans on theatres and allow women to perform on stage.

When the City burnt down a year later, it was taken as an excuse to produce some sort of order that might prevent further disaster. Charles the Second produced An Act for Rebuilding the Citty of London (1666), which is the precursor of today’s planning and building law. It included things like:

Item 19: Noisesome and Perilous Trades not the be in Principle Streets

This set up a distinct distinction between industrial zones and residential or commercial areas. Those areas more likely to burn down were isolated more effectively after the Fire.

Item 3: Sorts of Houses

If you look at the modern building code, it has a series of ‘Building Types” – residential, place of public assembly, office and so on. You can see this in the 1666 act, divided into four sorts of ‘houses’, with separate regulations applying to “Mansion houses for Citizens of extraordinary quality.” The regulations specified height, roof materials and the thickness of internal beams.

Finally, there was a directive specific to laneways themselves, Number 22 “Other Passages to be enlarged at discretion”, which gave the Council the power to “make wider any other such strait and narrow passages” to a width of fourteen feet, or about four metres. This was largely to help the city maintain better firebreaks in the event of another fire.

All of these laws were built to limit the inherent risk of large numbers of people living side by side in unplumbed, unlit, unventilated, wooden houses.

Particularly after the Second World War, building codes were designed to wipe out the kind of City Defoe knew by making adapting older buildings very hard, and building new suburban houses very easy. Both here and in the US, these Codes connected to New Deal policies providing mortgages for working people, and the re-zoning of farms and greenbelts to encourage new suburban housing at the expense of inner city slums. This is the city we know today.

My favourite article on building code reform, Sara Galvan’s delightful 2006 article for the Yale Law Journal, Rehabilitation Rehab Through State Building Codes:

Building codes are not neutral documents…. They create incentives to build certain types of structures, they establish economic biases toward particular materials and construction methods, and they impact urban layouts.

 The problem we currently face is that, for the first time in the history of urban planning, we want to increase our inner city populations and increase the diversity of activity in our city centres. Yet our systems of urban governance systems remain true to their historical legacy, leaving a significant hurdle between the ‘Vibrant’ visions we have for our cities, and the reality of how we manage them.





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