closeup of a stair showing riser and treadI have this weird power to see, even without measuring, when things are not absolutely straight or  perfectly symmetrical. A crooked picture on a wall leaps out at me, as if crying for help and I feel compelled to respond, to straighten pictures in other people’s homes, and in banks, hotels and doctors’ offices too. I can’t help it.

So when I went to the building site a few days ago, I immediately noticed that the stairs were just slightly off. At the lower level, the first three steps were fine, but on the 4th step there was a slight difference in the riser (the back section of the stair in the photo, where your toes would be in contact). By the landing, the deviation looked to be almost half an inch.  On a few steps, there was also a perceptible difference between one side of a stair and the other. When I pointed it out to the contractor, he first insisted that I was mistaken.

“Do you have an inchy-tape?” I asked innocently.

Sure enough, millimeter by millimeter, the stairs kept losing height and by the top one, the difference actually was half an inch.

It may not seem like much, but it absolutely is. Feet are funny. They immediately sense the pattern of a staircase and then expect it to be predictably consistent (actually, it’s the brain that does this, but let’s give feet the credit). Even a slight difference in the height of the riser or the width of the tread (the part your foot rests on) can confuse the brain. The person may then miss their footing, stumble and even fall.

Woman in hard hat at a building site, crouched on a half-built staircase, measuring a step with an inchy tapeThat’s why the Indian building code specifies the correct distance between stairs and mandates it as a requirement for certification. Yet we’ve all been in buildings where the code is ignored or, at best, viewed as a series of suggestions, not essentials.

Not our building. We love the code. We love how careful and precise it is, how it analyses the built environment, factors in human error and plans for the fact that there will always be children, daredevils and people who are distracted or disabled. Then it builds in protective features and ironclad requirements so that no one gets hurt.

That’s why inspections are essential at the end of a build and why spot-checks (by people like me, inchy-tape in hand) are crucial at every stage of construction. If we don’t stay on top of every tiny deviation and correct them immediately, all those individual mistakes will be compounded by the next ones and before we know it, we’ll have a Leaning Tower of Pisa on our hands.

Our building is a labour of love and that’s why we are going to what may seem like extraordinary lengths to ensure its adherence to the code. But in fact, this is just me being a bit obsessive. Building code has a life of its own. Whether I choose to visit the site or not, whether I happen to have that super-power of eyes with laser-level measurement skills or not, the code still exists and still has to be adhered to. When I raised the issue with Cushman and Wakefield, our project management partners, they were two steps ahead of me. They had already caught the error and had ordered the repairs.

I still carry my inchy-tape in my pocket whenever I go to the site. But I know it’s just for my own satisfaction. The Code’s got our backs.





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