Many people have an idea what their ideal custom house might be. Retired Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspector Holger Michelsen and his wife Madeleine have envisioned theirs. This vision includes the requirement that the house be dimensioned and constructed using the metric system. Holger retained a structural engineer who is sympathetic to the metric design of housing, and agreed help to make his vision a reality. The dimensions submitted are in millimeters, but also the drawing size was in ISO metric. The Whatcom County (Washington State) staff rejected the application but then proposed that for a fee of $100 per hour, they could translate the units to U.S. Customary. The two appealed the decision because the Whatcom County Code RCW 19.94.150 states that the system of weights and measures in customary use in the United States and the metric system of weights and measures are jointly recognized, and either one or both of these systems shall be used for all commercial purposes in this state. This is very similar to the State of Washington’s code.
It was argued that the action of applying additional fees to process a building permit application submitted in metric units “destroys the equality inherent in Whatcom County (Washington State) Code.” This proposed extra fee is in essence a penalty for the use of metric units. The County Engineering Staff attempted to justify the extra fees claiming that it would take more time to process a building permit request which was not submitted in U.S. Customary Units. The County officials remarked that other previous applications in metric units were all changed to U.S. customary by the applicants at the request of County Engineering staff. Apparently these County officials did not realize that according to Congress, the metric system is the “preferred” system of weights and measures in the US. The use of metric units for building construction is much more efficient than U.S. customary units. In my view, Whatcom County should have offered a discount for the submission of metric-only construction plans.
The other strange complaint from the County was the scale to be used. When I was told that the desired scale on the drawings is 1:48 or ¼” = 1 foot, my first thought was was “feet and inches? Two units?” Because we use dual units for housing plans, it is a much less efficient process, which is prone to error. Holger had used 1:50 and 1:25 scales as seemed appropriate. There is no “base unit” with metric scaling, they are a true ratio. My second thought was: “in the age of Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs, they were asking for submissions of scaled paper drawings?” Modern CAD programs work directly in the units involved, or are normalized, why on earth would anyone bother to use a scale? All of my parts for my engineering work are 1:1. I have not made one scaled drawing in the last six years. How much time is being wasted because there has been no thought to reforming the process of submission? Also why not demand A-Series paper sizes so that one can printout any size directly? Neither ANSI nor American Architectural paper sizes can do that. Why is The County Engineering Staff not thanking Holger for trying to set a useful precedent?—one which would make life easier for them?
The Board of Appeals on July 9th (2013-07-09) heard the case, and in a 3-2 ruling, found in favor of Holger and Madeleine. They can now submit their request for a Building Permit for review in metric at the same cost as Ye Olde English unit submissions are charged. Holger stated that the permit delay was worth the effort: “We were able to achieve true equality in recognition for metric and thereby lift metric units out of the parentheses to which they had been previously banished.” There was still one possible Olde English fly in the ointment. The County could appeal. Fortunately Holger received word on July 10th that they would not. We should all thank Holger and Madeleine for persevering and setting a metric-only precedent in US housing construction in Washington State. It is but a tiny crack in a solidly frozen glacier, but without them it would not be there at all.
The area where Holger and Madeleine have decided to construct their metric house is unique. Point Roberts Washington is an exclave. It is an area of the US which according to Wikipedia is “legally or politically attached to a main territory with which it is not physically contiguous because of surrounding alien territory.” That alien territory is Canada. Because they are surrounded on three sides by water and by Canada on the other, they have gasoline which is sold and priced in US Dollars per liter. Holger will now have a car designed in metric, into which he puts liters of gasoline, and then will be able to park in his metric garage—assuming he has a garage.
Holger and Madeleine thank you for your efforts on behalf of metric in the US.