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The hotel room felt Spartan and bleak. The sounds of my bare feet on the pseudo walnut laminate floor echoed around the room and off the bare walls. Noises from the hallway outside intruded regularly without the usual carpet to soak them up. The hipster-ish earthtone wall coverings and color-coordinated fixtures at least provided a muted aesthetic unity to the structure, a game attempt at fusing mid 60s understatement with 21st century techno-chic in such a way as to disguise the shortcomings of the regulation-driven modernizations done to this 20th century relic of a building. What is so damnably enraging about it all is that this renovation was not the result of market forces, but a response to an unnecessary Obama-era regulation, a regulation that President Trump seems strangely loathe to undo, and Trump’s unusual and quiet recalcitrance on this issue has more than a little whiff of unseemly connections to certain well known cartels. So what is going on here?
On my recent trip to Atlanta I encountered one of the more pernicious but lesser known Obama-era regulations – the Save Our Gravity (SOG) building codes regulation put out jointly by the EPA and the International Standards Organization (ISO). In an effort to severely restrict the actual physical carbon and lime footprint of our buildings, this code, first bruited in 2010, then quietly rolled out just after the 2012 elections were sealed, requires that commercial building owners take concrete steps to reduce their buildings’ overall weight and conserve gravity. Unlike many other building code revisions, this one was especially costly as it was applied retroactively to existing structures in areas of high population density on the grounds that excessive population growth was, according to EPA sub-director Gertrude Eibeme, “using up scarce gravity for future generations.”
I, of course, had heard of this regulation but did not think it a serious one as my own hometown was largely unaffected, its expansion being more lateral than vertical (thus stressing local gravity far less), but Atlanta, as one of the great development success stories of the last couple of decades, was specifically targeted as an enforcement area for its many vertically integrated properties. Like so many other misguided regulations of the Obama-era, this one is far more focused on ends than means, specifying weight reduction goals without providing any clear guidance on how those goals could be met without compromising safety, comfort, or convenience. It’s another one of those “Do this, or there will be massive consequences” type edicts so common to the prior 8 years. And Atlanta was only one of the first cities to feel the force of this edict, as other major metropolitan areas come into its scope beginning in 2018.
How are building owners responding to this heavy-handed edict? By stripping buildings of anything that isn’t nailed down, and quite frankly much that is. In the case of my hotel, they had removed all of the normal sound-deadening materials that let guests sleep peacefully at night: all of the carpet from all of the rooms, the oversized air conditioner that droned, rattled, and wheezed, the massive pedestal for the CRT television, along with the big tube itself, the heavy dun-colored polyester duvet, and they had even reduced the en suite mini bar offerings to just a single $4.00 bottle of spring water. I asked the hotel manager how much gravity this had conserved and I was astounded to learn this cut at least 500 lbs from each room’s gravity footprint.
“But we still aren’t within spec,” he told me. “We may have to remove the wood paneling from the elevators next.” I asked how well his competitors were coping. “Well, Embassy Suites has stopped putting branded pens in their rooms, and they removed the ‘es’ at the end of their name, saving them several tons of ink.”
“Embassy Suits?” I asked.
“No, Embassy SuiT” he replied, emphasizing the “T”. “You see, they cut uniforms too, which should make the name more fitting, except that suit is one-size-fits-all, and doesn’t really fit anyone.”
According to other sources I met with these last two days, this regulation is costing everyone a bundle. Said one person, an anonymous property manager I’ve known for years, “This is just so dumb. There’s still plenty of gravity to go around for centuries to come. The US is self-sufficient in gravity and has been for years, and the new Trump Administration knows it too, but they won’t even return our phone calls. Meanwhile we’ve just had to go around and do away with the 14th floor on every property – you know how hard that is?”
“Don’t you mean the 13th floor?” I asked. He frowned at me.
“We took care of that one years ago, and I’d suggest you not ask about it any more. Take a look at the elevator buttons, they aren’t the only things to disappear.”
“Will you be able to meet your targets?”
“Hell if I know. If they were fixed targets we might, but the damn regs are so vague that one nearby office tower has resorted to stuffing helium balloons up above the drop ceiling tiles. If it isn’t stopped, phase 2 targets in 2020 will require us to axe a lot more things like bathroom doors, not that we’re likely to still have those as the EEOC, Title 9, and OSHA are pushing for everyone to switch to gauze privacy curtains by 2019. It’s a mess, that’s all I can say.”
We all know that one of Donald Trump’s campaign slogans was “Drain the Swamp,” and many of us assumed that this also meant clearing out bureaucracy, rolling back regulations, and trimming the federal budget. While Trump has certainly followed through on some of these promises so far, like with the recent cancelling of the Obama administration’s so-called Clean Power plans, the Trump administration has been strangely silent on the SAG regulations.
In Thursday’s White House press briefing, a reporter from The Brickhouse, a well respected construction trade journal, did manage to squeeze in a question to Press Secretary Spicer. Spicer’s response might be telling.
“Look, Mr. Trump loves our planet, it’s his home after all, and he loves gravity as much as anyone. It keeps him grounded. But this SAG stuff is nonsense. You trying to tell me you’re not worried about gravity loss? I tell you, it’s a concrete concern, every day.”
At the end of the conference, the reporter tripped and fell, breaking his nose in three places when he landed face first in a chair. Spicer was heard quipping “Now he knows the gravity of our concern.” The reporter later claimed that a person or persons unknown had tied his shoelaces together.
Setting aside Spicer’s usual cantankerous responses, the stonewalling on answers by the EPA has been odd in an administration usually willing to defend itself, or counter-attack vigorously by Twitter. Instead there has been stony silence. If Trump were laying the foundation of a regulatory repeal, one should have expected to have heard at least some rumor of a framework from this, so far, leaky team. The timbre of their non-response is puzzling.
Thus it is even more strange to have discovered that this administration, far from demolishing an onerous regulation, has instead hired a new SAG deputy, Tsement Kirpich. Kirpich, an emigrant from Sevastopol in the Crimea, appears to have formerly been a sub-contractor employed in the construction of the Trump Tower, in Las Vegas, and who has been most recently employed as a concrete goose and garden gnome specialist at an art dealer in Atlantic City. What his area of expertise is regarding the SAG regulations is unknown.
More mysterious still, Kirpich, despite being a US citizen, has made frequent trips to Russian cement factories in Siberia, according to intel leaked by Wikileaks, and his tax returns show a more lavish lifestyle than should be available to an art dealer or building contractor. Mr. Kirpich appears to own multiple estates, all located quite close to large limestone quarries, and the quarries themselves have all recently been acquired by mysterious front companies charted in Panama.
I asked my source in Atlanta whether he had any prior dealings with Kirpich, and my friend visibly tensed. “Maybe. The name rings a bell, but I’ve never met the guy myself. All I know is that when we were demo’ing the 13th floors a few years back, some foreign dude was going around buying up the scrap. Paid in cash. We’d be filling up construction dumpsters and then these weird guys in black overalls would show up with rollbacks and offer to cart it off for us, real cheap. I may have heard one of them talking about Kirpich.”
“Any idea what they were doing with the rubble?”
“Not a clue. I asked a Russian guy I knew to eavesdrop, but he said all he could pick up was something about Vegas, gnomes with small hands, and geese.”
“Have they been coming around again?”
“Sorry, I gotta run. Interview’s over.”
My contact has since gone quiet.
From gravity conservation stripped down hotel rooms, to Russian lawn ornament dealers and from them back to construction debris, the mystery surrounding the administration is thick. In today’s White House briefing, largely lost amidst the questions over other White House leaks, one reporter did again ask Spicer about the SAG regs and the new rumors that Trump is keeping them in place via the Russian Mafia. Said Spicer, “This is just yet more fake news. Come back when you have something more concrete.”Published in