Maximizing the Minimum, from House to Transit


Two contractors are interviewed for a project. The project owner asks about the standards that will be brought to the performance of the work. Contractor A says, “We will ensure that the standards of the Building Code are rigidly enforced, and that our trades are equally vigilant regarding this requirement. We are ISO 9000 compliant to this standard, and we have checks and balances in our quality control procedures to ensure the performance is achieved.”

Contractor B says, “We will build to the minimum allowed by law.”

Big difference? Well, maybe not.

Actually, like so many adopted standards, the building code is simply the minimum allowed by law. It is no guarantee of quality, but a minimum level that we have set for ourselves in the public interest. A sort of floor beneath which we’d rather not sink.

Contractor B’s workmanship sounds like it leaves a lot to be desired, but perhaps his is a marketing problem.

A brief tour of websites for new condominiums and “quality-built homes” provide numerous examples similar to the following: “For Your Comfort and Convenience {the} entire home sealed on exterior walls with 6 mil poly vapour barrier system.” Sounds impressive, but such construction is actually the minimum allowed by law. Where buyers are influenced by this statement, any further investment in quality is just money down the drain.

My very nice and quite competent car mechanic told me several years back that a passing grade for a “safety inspection” didn’t actually require the car to have an engine. The safety check ensures the car can stop, signal, and do all sorts of things, but “going” isn’t necessarily one of them. When you’re shopping for a used car, there sure is a lot said about that safety certificate, but how much does it actually describe the quality of what you are buying? In the absence of specialised knowledge, not much.

Some builder agreements restrict access to the building site by the home’s purchaser. Safety and liability concerns are cited as reasons why viewing or photographing the fundamental construction underlying all those interior and exterior finish options is, unfortunately, not possible.

As purchasers, how can we enforce quality when we are denied access to the product?

In our building industry and beyond, we trust government and standards organisations to design and enforce quality where our own efforts as purchasers fall short. Judging from letters to the editors, it might be the only thing we entrust to government. We rail against regulatory intrusion into our lives and the marketplace, but seem quite willing for that same regime to ensure we receive “quality” for our purchasing dollar. In some cases, such as where tap water can exceed the quality of the bottled product for which we pay so dearly, we show our trust in strange ways .

A delightful case of obfuscation regarding quality and standards lies in the history of the ISO 9000 series of certifications with which we have become so familiar. Trumpeting achievement of these standards is by no means restricted to the manufacturing sector. According to ISO {the International Standards Organisation} in 2004, “service sectors now account by far for the highest number of ISO 9001:2000 certificates – about 31% of the total”. Compliance with the ISO 9000 series standards is tacitly linked to the quality of a product or service that is offered to the marketplace. In fact, these standards (9001, 9002, and onward) describe the consistency and efficacy of business practices that an organisation uses to conform to its own quality goals.

What is missing from the scene in the rush for conformance,

is some measure of the actual quality of the product or its improvement.

The worldwide-spread of ISO 9000 standards is described by various commentators as occurring with little evidence linking the achievement of ISO 9000 management standards to improvements in product or service quality. These same authors often point out that “quality” is actually defined in ISO 8402 while the 9000 series standards concentrate on the “how” rather than the “what”. Even the definition itself: “The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs” focuses on customer satisfaction rather than some innate degree of excellence for the thing itself.

Our attempt at quality has become a contest of consistency.

Rather than raising the bar, we exult in our ability to clear it again and again and again.

Aaron Renn, in his recent “urbanophile” post, talks about raising the bar on design, using Chicago’s transit system as an example of design that satisfies the minimum, but keeps the bar relative low. He provides many examples of inspiring design for transit stations and other elements of public transit that enrich the lives of those who use them.

Here in Waterloo Region, the transit debate is heating up once again, with opinions polarized about whether to build urban transit in the form of a light rail system, or extend the current bus system in an effort to modernize transit.

Whatever we decide to build, it would be nice if we committed to quality, inspiring design as the minimum.

2 thoughts on “Maximizing the Minimum, from House to Transit

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