Academic vs Practical Solutions

Building codes are beautiful. They’re full of pages and pages of delicate, detailed stuff like this:

R601.2.1 Compressible Floor-Covering Materials

Compressible floor-covering materials that compress more than 1/32 inch (0.8 mm) when subjected to 50 pounds (23 kg) applied over 1 inch square (645 mm²) of material and are greater than 1/8 inch (3.2 mm) in thickness in the uncompressed state shall not extend beneath walls, partitions or columns, which are fastened to the floor.

That just sets your heart a-flutter, right?

You laugh, but I’m being serious.

Building codes are beautiful because they’re one of the finest examples of a truly good, practical solution that our society has today.

What do I mean by “practical solution”?

A “practical solution”, as opposed to an “academic solution”, is a solution to a problem that not only addresses the direct problem, but also the environment in which the solution is to be implemented.

If you wanted the academic solution to how to build a building, it would have all sorts of structural analysis equations. It would have wind-load calculations and seismic simulations. It would have geologic surveys, and thermal efficiency tests. It would require calculating the distribution of heights of people likely to live in it, and the expected widths and turning radii of wheelchairs.

Maybe you can build a building this way. Maybe you.

That qualifier is the important part.

Maybe if you pay sufficient attention to detail, you can do all the calculations and measurements and proofs from scratch for your custom design. Maybe you can hire all the right experts to weigh in, and check your results. Maybe you can pay to have everything double and triple checked, to catch and eliminate any errors. Maybe you can succeed without making a mistake, or overlooking some crucial detail of how fires spread, or how plumbing can freeze in the winter, or the way the strength of lumber can vary based on its species and density.

Maybe you.

But certainly not everyone, and that’s the difference between an academic solution, and a practical one.

An academic solution can hold forth ideal equations and curves and graphs—an intricate framework of interlocking facts and deductions that gets things just right—but it is also very unlikely to be repeatable in practice.

An academic solution gives you a delicate, optimized answer.

A practical solution, on the other hand, gives you a robust process for arriving at good enough answers.

Academic solutions open new frontiers. Practical solutions enable civilization to inhabit them.

And practical solutions are glorious in their full “Table R602.3(1) FASTENING SCHEDULE, footnote d: Four-foot by 8-foot or 4-foot by 9-foot panels shall be applied vertically” splendor. Painstaking checklists designed to be bullet-proof against rushed schedules, tired contractors, and lazy architects alike.