The Metric Dream House

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

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?

Holger and Madeleine

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.

Gasoline in US Dollars Per Liter (click to enlarge)

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.

Point Roberts Washington

Holger and Madeleine thank you for your efforts on behalf of metric in the US.

Related essay:

Building a Metric Shed

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is not of direct importance to metric education. It is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.

6 thoughts on “The Metric Dream House

  1. Obviously Whatcom County officials were in violation of the law. The law of 1866.

    Sec. 204. Metric system authorized

    It shall be lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system; and no contract or dealing, or pleading in any court, shall be deemed invalid or liable to objection because the weights or measures expressed or referred to therein are weights or measures of the metric system.

    Sec. 205. Metric system defined

    The metric system of measurement shall be defined as the International System of Units as established in 1960, and subsequently maintained, by the General Conference of Weights and Measures, and as interpreted or modified for the United States by the Secretary of Commerce.

    An attempt to extort money from them for enjoying their legal right was in fact a violation of the law. It is sad that others gave in and surrendered their right but good to see they won and have set a precedent.

    The issue should not be considered settled though and those officials in Whatcom County who violated Michelsen’s rights should be suspended and their actions investigated. Also everyone else whose rights were violated in the past should be compensated financially from the very persons in the County’s offices that violated the rights of citizens to use the metric system.

  2. Metric Maven needs to find a better map of Point Roberts. The map shown is not metric. At the top of the map one can clearly see 1 470 000 feet and “Vancouver 20 mi) and Ladner 12 mi). I’m sure there must be a metric map available.

  3. Actually, it is semi-metric or dual. US Topographical maps try to be everything to everybody. The value of 1 470 000 feet is presumably from the State Plane Coordinate System of the State of Washington. Do you see the 496 and 497 (where the 4 is like a superscript) adjacent to it. Those are UTM easting coordinates (to the kilometer) for that UTM zone (500 would be center of zone due to false easting). If you could see the right or left margin, you could see the northing coordinates portrayed the same way.

    If the map the map is up to date (many aren’t) you would also see the two letter designation for the 100 km square tile relating UTM to US National Grid. Clear guides are sold for the different scales used in US Topographical maps to read finer than the 1 km square defined by four of the tic marks. At least the corners (and possibly intermediate tics) would give latitude and longitude coordinates.

    I will admit that the plethora of scales (lat/long), UTM, SPCS) can be a little confusing and make the maps hard to read. However, as long as both systems are recognized in the US, we are stuck with all those grids. Eventually, the UTM grid is supposed to be drawn all the way across the map, not just tics at the edges.

    • If they try to be everything to everybody, then why do they put such an effort forward to hide the metric? Without your explanation those others numbers are meaningless to the majority of people who see the map and because they are not named as kilometres, we are all fooled.

      Yet the words feet and miles are well named and stick out. To be everything to everybody would require that the metric sticks out for all to see.

  4. You are only seeing a small portion of a poster-sized map. Many of the map features are adequately explained in the margins, but you are only seeing part of the top margin. You can look at the whole map at USGS site (a bit at a time). The current version is fully gridded in UTM, while SPCS and lat/long continue to be tics at the margins. You particularly need to see the bottom margin to understand the map; the primary legend is there, including the additional information to support US National Grid (zone 10U, square DV). Within the square, USNG coordinates work exactly like British Ordnance coordinates. The tiling of squares and zones is different and is tied to the Military Grid Reference System used by the US and at least all NATO allies.

    The map fragment shown in the article must be a very old paper map. The Washington SPCS grid is completely different (many states changed when USGS adopted NAD83 datum), also the notes on Vancouver and Ladner are gone. But you are right, the map fragment alone is not completely usable unless you understand US Topographic maps pretty well; you need to see the whole sheet.

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