You Can’t Outlaw Ugly

A recent item in the Arizona Daily Star describes a situation that provides a great example of the purposes of zoning and building codes, and the extent to which those codes should be used to limit what a property owner may choose to build.

Here’s the story. A property owner in Tucson recently constructed a house on his property. As I understand it, the property is in a residential area and is zoned for residential use. The news item says that the house was constructed with proper government approvals.

So, what’s the big deal, you ask?

Well, it has to do with the materials used to construct the house, or to be more precise, how the house looks. It’s made out of corrugated metal shipping containers. There are four of them, two of them side by side, stacked two high.

Before you jump to the conclusion that it couldn’t possibly be a proper dwelling, remember what I said about it being constructed with proper government approvals. According to the news item, city and state building officials say that the house meets the applicable building codes. That means whatever its appearance, the house meets minimum standards for a dwelling.

That’s what the building code is for, to make sure that buildings meet minimum functional standards. If I can re-use materials and turn them into something that not only complies with the building code, but provides functional and economical housing, isn’t that a good thing?

But what about zoning, you say? Doesn’t the zoning code limit where you can put this type of building? And why isn’t it treated the same way as a mobile home? Yes, the zoning code does limit where mobile homes can be installed, but this isn’t a mobile home. According to the city employee quoted in the news item, it fits the zoning code definition of a modular home. Modular homes are permitted on property zoned for residential use.

As reported in the Star, however, those technical details haven’t stopped people from arguing that the city shouldn’t have allowed the home to be built because it is “ugly and inappropriate for its location.” OK, it may be ugly. Remember, however, that building and zoning codes aren’t meant to control ugly. They’re meant to control functionality and use.

If the codes were meant to control ugly, then who needs a code? It’s pretty hard to write a code that prohibits ugly buildings, but allows attractive ones. What you end up with then is the people who enforce the code deciding what is attractive and what is ugly. If aesthetics are the goal, it would make more sense to forget about a code and just have a building official with good taste who decides whether or not you get to build what you want to build based on the building official’s evaluation of your proposed building’s attractiveness.

One problem with that approach is that if buildings were permitted based solely on someone’s subjective evaluation of a proposed building’s aesthetic qualities, a lot of buildings that are now considered landmarks would never have been built, such as the modern addition to the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre, or the Transamerica pyramid. The larger problem is, of course, that if that was how things worked, you would never know for sure that you would be allowed to build what you want unless you made sure it wasn’t too different from all the buildings that already exist in the neighborhood.

Isn’t that one of the criticisms of the way newer neighborhoods look, that they are too homogeneous? If you try to prohibit ugly, what you are going to get is everything looking the same.

I also find it interesting that the concerns about whether or not the materials are appropriate for the intended us are being raised not by the users, but by the neighbors. If someone is willing to spend good money to build a house out of shipping containers and live in it themselves, or rent it to someone who is willing to pay good money to live in it, then isn’t that an indication that the owner or tenant thinks the materials are appropriate?

The same principle applies to any innovation. One example of this that occurs to me is the artichoke. Who first decided that artichokes were not only edible, but would be worthwhile to cultivate? Whoever made that decision was a visionary, obviously. No doubt other people thought artichokes were too unorthodox, inappropriate for human consumption, and just plain ugly. If the opinions of the naysayers controlled the decisions, lots of innovations would never have happened.

Building and zoning codes are for maintaining standards of functionality and compatibility of uses. If you want to live in a neighborhood where conformity of appearance is the goal, you are free to enter into an agreement with like-minded property owners that controls how everyone’s building will look. Those agreements are called covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs), and the organizations that enforce them are called neighborhood associations.

In my opinion, tolerating nonconformity is the price we pay for innovation, and for the freedom to make our own choices. I will tolerate what I might consider an ugly house on my neighbor’s lot in exchange for being able to have my house look the way I want it to look, without having to please my neighbor.
I’m all for having building and zoning codes to make sure that buildings are safe and that their uses are compatible with the surrounding properties. That’s why they exist.


“Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.”

Lily Tomlin
US actress & comedienne (1939 – )