Construction companies being forced to build identical houses differently to meet the divergent demands of different council inspectors and their councils

By Alex Tarrant

Council building inspectors are interpreting the Building Act differently from each other, even when consenting identical houses, making this a part of the local government regulatory framework that needs to be urgently dealt with, the head of a major New Zealand house building firm says.

The managing director of Lockwood Homes, Bryce Heard, has welcomed the Productivity Commission's review of council regulatory responsibilities, but is sceptical of the outcomes as the review might just see the current regulations tightened, rather than allowing for inspectors to use a bit of nous when it came to their work.

Lockwood was highlighted by Productivity Commission chair Murray Sherwin in an interview with last month, when he raised the issue of councils interpreting nationwide regulations differently, meaning construction companies were having to build the same houses differently, depending on where they were built.

“A company like Lockwood, which has been building good solid houses for 60 years, will tell you that, depending on which council they’re about to sell a house in to, they might be told ‘you need another brace there’ because that doesn’t comply with the building regulations," Sherwin said.

“It’s just different interpretations of the building codes. That gets pretty frustrating for some people," he said.

'We're different, but have the same requirements'

Speaking to, Heard said inspectors had been scared into being sticklers for the rules, due to the liability and onus placed on them like that seen in the leaky homes fiasco, where councils are footing 25% of the bill for consenting homes built with untreated timber. More of an onus needed to be placed on home owners and their builders when it came to liability for poorly built homes.

Lockwood's building design was completely different to the way conventional houses were built, but its houses were still subjected to regular Building Act requirements such as bracing requirements which weren't needed, but imposed, on Lockwood.

Well, only sometimes imposed on Lockwood to be exact, as different council building inspectors interpreted the Building Act differently, meaning identical houses built in two different locations often had different requirements placed on them.

Heard told of one instance at the same council where two different building inspectors required different bracing standards on buildings with the same design.

“[Their boss said], ‘on the one hand you could say that as an approved alternative system, with 60 years of history, we should authorise the Lockwood home, that’s quite right. But on the other hand we could say a strict interpretation of the law says that you can’t do it this way – you’ve got to have these extra bracing standards, and that’s right too,’” Heard said.

“Some councils have enough nous to know that Lockwood’s been around for 60 years, they’ve never had a single claim for leaky houses; they’ve never had a house fall over in an earthquake, including Canterbury; never had a house blow away in a storm," he said.

And yet conventional building systems were riddled with those problems.

"We haven’t had any of that, so some inspectors have the nous to say, it’s an approved system, give it a tick. Others say, ‘well it doesn’t meet the standards,’ which are patently not written to suit this system of building, ‘so I’m going to make it meet the standards. They make us put in bracing, they make us put in waterproofing, they make us put in whatever," he said.

'We've never had a house rot'

“While everybody else didn’t treat their timber frames, we did. We continued to treat our houses right through [the 90s and 00s], so we’ve never had a house go rotten. Everybody else has had homes that went rotten and fell down, and now we get caught up in the standards that apply to fix their cock-ups," he said.

"It’s scurrilous.”

There was too much latitude for inspectors to interpret the Building Act requirements.

"Of course, those who want to be sticklers for the rules give us a hell of a time. Whereas there are those who say, this is a practical solution, it’s been around for 60 years and never been a problem," Heard said.

Heard said his fear was that the review of regulations would just result in further tightening, without recognising the differences in building design.

“All these people in the standards authorities and standards committees, and BRANZ, and Department of Building and Housing, they’re protecting their jobs in a downturn by reviewing the regulations. Every time the review them, and tighten them, we get caught up in it," he said.

"But compared to the rest of the industry, we’re squeaky clean.”

Leaky buildings have scared councils

The leaky building fiasco was a story of the government allowing for untreated timber to be used in frames, not the way local councils approved building consents. Yet because councils were being targeted in the leaky building clean-up bill, they were scared into applying regulations tightly.

In his previous role as the head of the Crown research institute Forestry Research Institute between 1997 and 2005, “we said to the industry, don’t even think about going to untreated timber frames. Because you’re going to have another debacle. We said that in 1996, 97, 98 – right back to 1992 actually," Heard said.

“They said, ‘they do it in Australia, and we can save a lot of money’. It was Carter Holt Harvey that led it, capably supported by Fletcher Challenge Forests, and so they went to untreated timber frames. Then by the year 2003, the houses were going rotten. As we told them they would be," he said.

“We told the industry not to do it, don’t even think about it.”

Look at our record

Councils needed to give more credit to track records, rather than relying on the theoretical experts and bureaucrats “protecting their roles and their jobs by making things overly complicated.”

“It wasn’t so much the bureaucrats who led this, it was the witch-hunting that went on to hang the bureaucrats out to dry, that made them move to protect themselves. The over-reaction to interpretation of the rules results directly from what went on under the last government," Heard said.

“And councils are still scared. Because councils have somehow been put in to the vanguard of accountability for houses rotting and falling over, and not meeting the standards. That’s wrong. If you build a house, and you get a cheap builder, and he does a cheap job and your house goes rotten, that’s your fault. You took the cheap option," he said.

“There must be more onus put back on the owner, to ensure that he or she is getting the right advice and building a house that’s going to service their needs, and less put on the local authority."

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“There must be more onus put back on the owner, to ensure that he or she is getting the right advice and building a house that’s going to service their needs, and less put on the local authority."
Waste of time saying it cause the gvt never listened, but maybe someday someone will. I fail to see why my rates and taxes should be put towards fixing a house in which the owner got exactly what they paid for.

Alex, Just in a similar vein to this article Has anyone enquired as to how another  well known timber home building company are doing in relation to the leaky/earthquake related new legislation? They are called Fraemohs located out in Kaiapoi?
Used to be my old haunt before Ca. Worth a call?

I came across this article earlier today while looking around the web for info on 'log' profile clading (does anyone knows if its still compliant with the building code)
Its off topic alittle but nevertheless relevant to this comment by Heard......'rather than allowing for inspectors to use a bit of nous when it came to their work.'
Read the comments for 'the big picture' and wonder at whom was using their nous.

The use, or not, of untreated timber is a gross over simplification of the leaky home problem. Untreated timber has been used in building houses for hundreds of years, and if built a certain way, the houses last just as long as using treated timber. Rotting timber is a symptom of timber that cannot dry out sufficiently and the main cause of that in NZ was construction techniques and material failures that allowed the water to enter and wet the timber, and most importantly, not allowing the water to escape. The result – rotting timber (leaky home syndrome). It is true that untreated timber is more susceptible to this, ie is shows up quicker, but just as many houses that have been built with treated timber have weather tightness failures, they are just hidden. This is why the Govt. have put a ten year limit on claims, otherwise over time,  it would cost them twice as much.
It is entirely proper that the councils and state Government should pay for the leaky home debacle (all of it in fact) as they were warned in 1995 by industry experts that the use of prevalent construction techniques and materials (not untreated timber by the way) would lead to this. Yes it is unfair on both leak home owners and the general ratepayer that we should have to pick up the tab. That is why we should hold local council and Government to account and vote them out next time.

I'd love to know where untreated, NZ plantation grown, stress graded, pinus radiata has been used for 100's of years, Wood is natural product and each species has its own characteristics. Did they remove treatment from pine weatherboards?

The councils and the government do not pay - instead it is the blameless rate/taxpayers. It would be proper for the pollies to pay but it is entirely improper for the general public to pay - the builders and home puchasers are the only ones responsible for the consequences of their own actions.
Voting for the red or blue party every 4 years does not make a democracy - I am not at all responsible for the action (or inaction) of 'my' government.

Dale is absolutely correct. It is a unfortunate that the media has equated leaky homes with untreated timber rather than the necessity of building a water-tight structure. The blame lies with Goverment, the building industry, local councils, and individual builders but genuine compensation will likely be difficult. They were warned.  As always, caveat emptor

BJ Frogblog:
"Then of course there is the second problem exposed here, which is the role of the council in certifying that a particular house is habitable. The utterly useless level of inspection and interference that the councils engage in when it is up to the builder to satisfy the BUYER’S inspectors and his inspectors to satisfy his bankers, of the quality or lack thereof, of any dwelling bought. Councils have nothing whatsoever to do with THAT transaction, so what on earth are they meddling in it for? So they can be sued for leaky homes?
These are just two of the really really stupid things about NZ housing that get me going. There are many more.

To use bracing as an example of the differing requirements by councils is laughable. Every house, whether the house is the house is a one off or a reproduced design will have its own unique bracing requirements as it is the section not the house design that dictates the amount of bracing required...
Lockwood houses are an alternative solution to the building codes. Therefor they must prove how their houses are going to comply with the legislation set out by the building act. Not all building systems are covered by the various codes and nor should they have to be. The Lockwood system is specific to them and as such it is their responsibility to supply the necessary documentation to support their system. If they haven't supplied enough information to support their alternative solution to the building code the councils have no choice but to fall back on approved systems. They are what have been tested and approved. They are also the basis of most people's expertise. The she'll be right attitude is why we had the leaky home syndrome issue and Lockwood is wanting that attitude put back in place to suit their unique system. If its been around for 60 years then surely they've had enough time to compile the necessary documentation to prove their unique, copyrighted and patented system...
Im in the architecture industry and have lodged hundreds of plans throughout New Zealand that meet the compliance criteria via both approved systems and alternative solutions. Personally I commend, the councils as for the most part they do a pretty good job. Most complaints I hear from people regarding councils are coming from people that perhaps need to up skill themselves before casting stones...

Well said.
My recent (05) experience pre-dated some of the rule tightening, but the structure was as 'outside the square' as they come. The suppliers of the panel (cs/styrene/cs) had all their standard fixing details, I just stapled the relevant ones to the plans. The grown-pole portal frame, ply and crossed-wire/turnbuckle braced, went through via a Producer Statement, without a murmur.
The only debate was as to the cheapness of the build..........   :)

Sorry have to disagree with you here, under the current act it is in the juridiction of each individual council to accept /reject alternative solutions which causes this frustration
see in the case of lockwood this a pointless bureaucratic nightmare

Hello Trexjr, and indeed, all readers of these comments. My name is Andrew La Grouw and I build Lockwood Homes in the Nelson Tasman region. I also have had experiance building Lockwoods around NZ.
 I think in this article two issues are being confused as one. We are often challenged by council authorities on aspects of our construction, and it is not unusual for the folks processing building consents to interpret Building Code differently. That is one issue.
Bracing requirements are another issue -and don't neccessarily create a problem for us at the local council level.
Bracing requirements are determined by the design of the building and site conditions -wind being the biggest factor. Once the requirements are established the house is engineered with reference to Brace Panels. Brace Panels are standard wall panels of various configurations that have been tested to meet the required performance. Lockwood has a suite of these panels.
If we have a bracing requirement that falls outside of the Lockwood suite of braced panels, we have to fall back on standard bracing elements which are specified by the engineer. Typically this will involve overlining a wall with ply. 
In short: it is up to us -Lockwood as the owner of the building system, myself as the designer and builder, and ultimately, the structural engineer, to determine what the requirement is for bracing on any given project. 
Having said all this, the second issue in this artical is summed up by Bryce's comment "We're different, but have the same requirements".  With this in mind, bracing makes for a very interesting technical discussion on how buildings behave in (say) a cyclone, an earthquake, very high winds, etc. 
Lockwood buildings are renowned for handling earthquakes, cyclones , etc here in New Zealand and around the world. This is something Lockwood doesn't have to test anymore -we just have to look at some of the very significant events Lockwood buildings have been put through, and see how they survive with minimal damage, to know that a Lockwood is indeed a very strong building.
However the strength of a Lockwood is in the building system: toungue-and-groove solid timber walls locked togethor with aluminium extrusions, walls and roof tied down with steel tie rods to the subfloor. The construction system is unique -and very, very different from conventional construction. And yet (and this is the issue Bryce was alluding too), the standards for bracing panels are based on conventional construction techniques. 
This is a source of frustration for Lockwood because we know our walls act very differently to  conventional walls when under stress; and that how a Lockwood wall acts under stress is exactly why a Lockwood is so strong. And yet the bracing tests we submit to, and the bracing requirements we have to meet are in accordance with conventional timber-framed construction.
I hope this explains things a little -and if you are wondering what makes the Lockwood building system so different, then do go and check out a Lockwood showhome near you.
Best regards,

Oh really, T-rex (that's a Dinosuar name, innit?).  "it is the section not the house design that dictates the amount of bracing required"
If I base-isolate the building, the section has sweet-FA to do with anything in the building.
I can do that in several ways, most notably by parking a couple of double-wides on the section, and pray tell me what 'bracing' that rig should need?
And the thrust of the article is that building inspectors, as a gross generalisation, abuse their powers shamefully, are excessively risk-averse, and have complete freedom to add layers of cost for zero gain in value generally. So what about commenting on that cost/benefir, then, eh??
Because y'all will recall the disconnect between building costs and household incomes - along with land, it's the cause of the housing unaffordability issue....

Is your section is on top of a fault line that might set of a volacano and threaten my extinctsion?? Base isolation does not make a building earthquake proof and hence my life would still be in danger…
Sorry I was reading the article titled Construction companies being forced to build identical houses differently to meet the divergent demands of different council inspectors and their councils and was replying to the viewpoint of the owner of Lockwood who I assume ( I may be wrong) uses a 3604 approach to their bracing where the section is a key factor. Perhaps he should use the base isolation method in constructing his homes. I’m sure it would help in reducing construction cost??
A good 50% of my work is directly involved in low cost housing. Councils requiring us to adhere to compliance documents doesn’t add any cost to building of these simple homes at all. Perhaps the issue you have is with the compliance documents themselves. You should come up with your own solution then. There is nothing stopping you from doing this. These documents even give you guidance on how to do so.
Why would councils not be excessively risk adverse? They're the ones being told to stand up and take the blame...
Affordable houses can and do get built all the time. Unfortunetly they’re not perceived as desirable so we build houses above our means in places where sections have high demand… simple economics...

I would have thought it the locale that dictates bracing (wind, snow load etc). Lockwood could not use 3604 bracing calcs as their solid wood construction isn't mentioned (IIRC 3604 only talks in terms of sheet and strap bracing). The point is that lockwoods exceed the bracing/strength requirement of 3604 by several factors, so its BIS BS to require additional bracing.
IIRC it was there performance (in both strength and impact resistance!) during a cyclone in Aus in the 70's that helped make the Lockwood brand

Yes exactly, if 3604 is cited as means of compliance then the section or location of the section would dictate bracing demand ie eatrhquake zone and wind zone. Wind zone being an assment of several factors including the slope and exposure of the section. Lockwood can use the 3604 to asses the demand required and use those guidlines to asses brace placement etc. He would still have to provide his own data to show what the actual bracing units his construction technique acheived and satisfy the loading requirements for connections. Many companies cite the 3604 as the demand criteria they use prove their product can be used as a bracing system including Gib, Triboard and steel framed houses...
If Lockwood is having trouble with consent authorities then they quite simply haven't provided the correct information and needs to improve his draughting teams knowledge and compitency. It's a proven system (and a good system) there shouldn't be any issues.

Not sure on what basis you say the system is "proven" or "good" is fact the leaky fiasco and the winding up of the BIA after being defended from an irate citizenry at the taxpayers expense would suggest otherwise.
I'd suggest you read this

Yeah leaky homes...
Interesting article. I started out as a builder and built over 50 houses through the height of the leaky home sydrome. To date (fingers crossed, touch wood) I haven't had any issues made aware to me. So by default I do agree with much of that article. I've been fortunate that I had good training and built each house as if it were my own. The what do we do now issue is always going to be a nightmare as you can point finger at so many areas which were unknowingly negligant at the time. In turn they can turn and point the finger at someone else. Deregulation wasn't the cause no, but I do have to say that many of the leaky problems I deal with now possibly wouldn't be there if the councils were as anal then as they are now. Hindsight is an awesome thing... I don't have answers on how to fix that problem... On the plus side leaky homes have done a grand job at creating employment through tough economic times...

Well I'm an engineer and what horrifys me is where are are reference implementations? If they had spent 300K building the reference home in untreated timber with various claddings and monitored it the whole thing could have been avoided. Instead they spend millions on career bureaucrats and legal fees.
I've had a bit to do with ali joinery as well and the slimmimg down of the profiles also was the cause of issues where the sealant cracks because of the smaller mitre joints.
I agree with not PC in the effect that manuals and procedure do not guarantee good outcomes, (ask the next Pitbull that bites you if he has a microchip) skill and testing do, Also relying on council building inspectors to fix/catch systemic design/material issues was never going to work, they should be there simply to make sure the work is to code, the code in this case was faulty

Neven - I've dealt with more than one LA, and my experience is that a Producer Statement covers the bureaucratic backside.
Waymad - there are indeed sections which need different design. Wind-zoning comes to mind.........  The last time someone tried to base-isolate that, Dorothy ended up trotting down the yellow brick road.

Council building inspectors are interpreting the Building Act differently from each other, even when consenting identical houses, making this a part of the local government regulatory framework that needs to be urgently dealt with, the head of a major New Zealand house building firm says.
Something does not add up.
So all architects, draftsmen, builders, manufacturers, insurers, lawyers and lobyists interpret the Building Act in an identical manner? 
If only Council buiding inspectors could see the error of their ways.  

Nice to see I stirred up the common taters ter some actual thoughts.
A couple of quotes, neither terribly complementary aboot architecture:
Stewart Brand (that ol' hippie Whole Earth Cataolg guy, lately gone nuc-u-lar in Whole Earth Discpline) on architects:  'exterior decorators'
Frank Lloyd Wright on leaky roofs.  'Of course it leaks.  That's how you know an Architect was involved'.
But enough of the merriment and witticisms.
Building and bracing are just one simple example of the takeover of personal responsibility by a clueless bureaucracy.  Of course building and foundation/site need to respect each other, and my tonge-in-cheek example of a couple of caravans would undoubtedly get blown away in, say, Mossburn.  But a couple of forty-foot containers wouldn't, and Bracing is quite irrelevant there.
Couple of leetle stories for yez.
Out on the windy plains up by Te Anau, Lands and Survey built a few barns with steel drims full of concrete at the corners.  And a curved roof.  Just like an aerofoil shape, in fact.  So when the nor-west blew, they barns just flew, and the 44 gal drums with them.  Nothing ter do with Bracing, more about overall shape.
Out on the Canterbury Plains, an old builder of my acquaintance always used to build his houses with a cast-in cable - foundation up to ridgeline, double-looped and tied in everywhere, in the nor-west corner.  He'd seem Keith Hay portables lift and try ter fly.  No code told him that.  Common sense and his reputation demanded it.
I'll leave the last word to Stewart Brand:  Codes destroy craftsmanship.  Everything gets built down to them......

Waymad - that was fine while we colonials all knew how to wield a hammer, and which way things would fall.
Unfortunately, we got to be a specialised society - which meant that more and more knew ess and less about more and more, untill they knew stuff-all about anything. They bought houses, for huge money (for reasons various, but lack of personal expertise was one) and then demanded - in their ignorance - that it be guaranteed not to fail. That put pressure on to those who had let the rules go slack, and they've over-reacted. 
Those fellows with the drums - if they'd all been hung on the trailing edge, she'd have stalled earlier; not have flown as far.....          :)

Yes, it's moral hazard once again. And the designer/builders/suppliers are not only bailed out, but funded to have a second go.

If Lockwood really wanted to get their designs to fly through council consenting processes every time then they could always apply to the Department of Building & Housing for a "Multiproof Consent", which must (if unchanged / not customised) be approved by a Building Consent Authority (BCA) within ten working days. Of course, when they start to modify away from a standard plan then the normal consenting process applies and BCA's have to thoroughly analyse plans - that's where the potential for problems (for the designers) arises as if they may haved missed the required info/supporting documentation for the changes or there may just be errors in their workings then they'll get queried. More often than not with issues of consenting it's just minor errors in documentation (or simply missing documentation) that causes problems - generally easliy remedied by a Competant draughtsperson. I have no issue with Lockwood systems, but if the correct documentation isn't there at the consent application then they will have issues to be dealt with, just like everyone else.
As I pointed out last week on this topic, every section in NZ has the potential for different bracing requirements and foundation requirements, even when designed to exactly the same standards. Changes in soil type, wind zones, corrosion zones, earthquake zones, orientation to North etc, all have effects on the compliance of a building under the NZ Building Code. There simply isn't a "One Size Fits All" approach, without massively over-specifying on nearly every aspect of the building's structure and insulation, unless of course everyone wants to pay for that next time they build...
As afterall TrezJr said above "Most complaints I hear from people regarding councils are coming from people that perhaps need to up skill themselves before casting stones..." As a BCA officer myself I know from experience that there are definitely those who learn from their mistakes and there are those who don't - making the same mistakes time after time. And some of the first to rush out and get their Licensed Building Practitioner (LBP) licenses were those who just can't get it right, as they are aware that in years to come they may be able to self-certify some work and then they can take whatever shortcuts they want without "Council Meddling". We wont just have leaky building then, we'll have structurally flawed, leaking, under-insulated, dangerous buildings (normally without the home-owner's knowledge) to clean up at the tax-payers/rate-payers expense - they may be designed and build by LBP's but it'll all be the council's fault again when the shit hits the fan...
The BCA's are there just to check you've got it right - you are entitled to challenge any decision but generally the BCAs will have a better grip on the legislation and what it requires (but we can be proven wrong if you show the evidence). Many designers, architects etc just don't have time to keep up with all the changes to the Building Code so the BCA acts as the backstop to make sure mistakes don't pass through. Within the last year we've seen nearly every single Acceptable Solution to the NZ Building Code change (three sections were just changed yesterday) and numerous cited standards have been updated as well. Thats thousands of pages of methods of compliance that have changed - BCA's have to ensure that people keep up with that.
And as for saying BCA's are too risk averse - well, if you had the home-owner, their insurer, their bank, lawyers and any future owners relying on the BCA's desision that the building was built to the approved, compliant documentation, with a BCA liability of 10 years then if that was you in that position wouldn't you be a bit risk averse. We don't want issues arising costing owners, taxpayer and rate-payers a packet to fix up mistakes - better to get it right at the start eh... And if a consent costs $5000 out of a $250000 build cost, isn't that better insurance than society paying $150k in 5-10 years time to fix it up when things go wrong?

Hi Neven - I never mentioned pine. But your point is worth noting in that if you are going to use a timber that the rest of the world only uses for non-structural products (like paper, wooden boxes etc.), then you have to treat the hell out of it to have any hope of surviving.  However, my point is that the need to treat timber to hide the symptoms of faulty products and workmanship re weather tightness is not the solution to solving this issue. There are just as many, if not more, leaky homes out there that have been built with treated timber and because of this the problem is hidden. Hiding the problem is not solving the problem, but if the Govt. can hide it past the ten year claim period, then by their definition, liability problem solved.

As  Waymad quoted, Stuart Brand  on architects: 'exterior decorators'. This is exactly what their involvement in residential housing should be, ie there is no need for them to be involved in reinventing the wheel on how a house is built for weather tightness and structurally integrity. Architects should only be adding their ‘flair’ to decorating around structural framework.  Both of these issues should have a far higher spec across the board in NZ. We have a pretty benign climate compared to most other countries and yet our building code has been dumbed down to below the minimum (as leaky homes and earthquakes have shown) required. You do not have to massively over spec. as been claimed, yes there is a little extra needed in materials, but not much. And we could use the money we save on getting rid of bureaucratic waste to pay for it. This bare minimum is why every plan needs tweaked by a builder/architect and then checked in detail by council. Up until the leaky home crisis, this suited councils as it was a revenue generator, the bureaucracy didn’t care that it was hard to administer at the coal face by the BCA’s, and still don’t. Of course all that has changed since leaky homes and the liability that came with that. The council’s motto was ‘all money and no responsibility.’  So what is their response, add another layer called LBP so they become liable for any failure, and by default the council are not liable, but they will still take the money thanks.  The problem is an ideological one where the system of layers of control and checks that has been imposed by Govt.(state and local) on this industry(although it is not unique)  is causing the very issues they say, they are meant to avoid. Rather than change the system, their only solution is further control and checks, and thereby the problem compounds. The only way to change this is for a voluntary regime (systems) change, or an event that causes the complete collapse of the system. Any bets?

Dale, there's a third alternative - especially for R&M.  Just do it, and don't tell anyone....  I foresaw this some years ago....
That wall, Inspector?  Always bin there.  We just done painted 'er.  Looks good, dunn'it?

Hi Waymad – Yes this is a logical response, but having to go ‘black market’ makes criminals of us all (according to the bureaucracy’s definition) which they can only solve with more control and checks, but they are so caught up in it, that they could not stop if they wanted to.