International Coalition Against Metric­Only Labelling

The following extract is taken from the current issue of The Yardstick, the newsletter of the British Weights & Measures Association

An international coalition has been formed by around a hundred companies and associations from the USA and Europe to protest against the EC directive's requirement that, from lst January 2000, all product labelling must be in metric only.

The coalition opposes metric­only labelling because it requires exporters to create two product lines, one with dual markings to meet requirements for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the other with just metric for the EU. This creates problems in inventory, record­keeping, shipping, and developing instructions and literature for products. During a meeting of coalition representatives and EC commissioners in Rome during November 1997, the coalition urged an amendment to the EU directive to make an indefinite extension to the metric­only deadline. The EU appears to recognise the difficulties arising from the directive and has indicated this in a message, summarising developments, sent by Brussels to US agencies:
"Exporters, both European and American, have begun to focus on this deadline and are now openly voicing their objections, citing the costs of complying with conflicting EU metric­only and US mandatory dual­labelling requirements. At least one European Commission official is admitting that the trade implications of Directive 80/181AEC requiring metric­only labelling had not been thoroughly measured, and is indicating a willingness on the part of the Commission to reopen the issue to hear industry grievances".

American members of the coalition include IBM, Mobil Oil and Hewlett Packard. European members include companies and associations from Germany, Belgium, Italy, France, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Finland, Greece and Turkey. British members include: the Food and Drink Federation; the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance; the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association; and the UK Tea Packers Association.

BWMA contacted the British American Chamber of Commerce over a year ago to warn them about the implications of the EC directive. However, its Executive Director Paul Waite declined to support BWMA's campaign, saying he did not know what his members' views were on the issue, and that he did not want to "go against the government". BWMA has again written to Mr Waite asking if he now wishes to review the matter.

For more information on the BWMA

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Opposition in the USA

This further extract is also taken from the current issue of The Yardstick, the newsletter of the British Weights & Measures Association

Our friend Bill Holdorf, from Woodridge, Illinois, has kindly sent copies of two letters that he received recently. One was from Philip J. Davies at the Applied Mathematics Division of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, saying:
"I am still of the opinion that the metrization of the USA is a silly, unnecessary and costly project. It should be undertaken in the small only if an individual company finds it important to compete in the world market... I have the impression, though, that it has slowed up a bit. Perhaps the city, state and federal governments realize that it's more important to fix the potholes in the highways than to change the signs to kilometers."

The other letter was from Robert R. Koons of Construction Engineering Services (Division of Robert R. Koons, PE, Inc) in Tempe, Arizona, saying:

"I am opposed to metric conversion for several reasons. The US is the most highly developed nation in the history of civilization. We have attained this stature using our practical system of measurement and we are too deeply entrenched and committed to this system to change. Cost/benefit studies have been attempted without success because the costs and benefits are incalculable. There has never been a demand by business, industry or the general population to convert. Metric has been legal in this country for over a hundred years. Our business and industry leaders are among the most mercenary cut-throats in the history of civilization when it comes to making a fast buck. If there was an economic advantage to converting, these folks would have found a way to do it many years ago.

I have followed the metric movement since the early '70s. I am convinced that there has never been any real momentum to convert. Rather, a few misguided politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, those folks who think they know what's best for the rest of us, have promoted legislation to force the conversion. The 1976 law told us that we will voluntarily convert. Law is force: how do you force people to volunteer?

They set up a metric commission to travel through the country twisting arms and trying to coerce people to convert. No luck! Then they slipped a metric conversion measure into the 1988 Omnibus Trade Act. My own Congressmen admitted they did not know they voted on this thing. The law said that the government must convert. The idea was to force conversion through the horrendous economic power of the federal government. Through the Federal Highway Administration, funds allocated to the States were tied to metric conversion. The State of Arizona re­wrote all their standards into metric and required all new highway work to be designed in metric. Recently, our legislature said they had enough of this, [and] passed another law directing the Department of Transportation to go back to the English system.

I predicted many years ago that our government would force this mess on us, we would get half way committed, then stall, and wind up being stuck halfway between the two systems for decades. I think this is where we are now. We have too many drones in this nation who are content to lie back and let their government dictate to them; in some cases because they don't have the time and resources to fight back, in many cases because the liberals have convinced them that the government is their provider."

More on the USA

The following comment appears in an American book entitled, "Simplified design of wood structures" John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 5th edition, 1994, reprinted 1997):
"The building industry in the United States is still in a state of transition from the use of English units (feet, pounds, etc.) to the metric based system referred to as the SI units (for Systéme International). Although a complete phase­over to SI units seems inevitable, at the time of this writing the construction materials and products suppliers in the United States are still resisting it. Consequently, most building codes and other widely used references are still in the old units. (The old system is now more appropriately called the U.S. system because England no longer uses it!)"

This last comment is incorrect; England and the rest of the UK is a long, long way from a general acceptance of metric units.
It is also worth pointing out that building products will never be in metric sizes, in the sense that whole units will be applicable. See the Perspectives Magazine article elsewhere in these pages.

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Proportionality; Ergonomics;Cognitive Reducibility

The following was posted to the alt.architecture newsgroup into a thread about metric/imperial measurement and is worth reproducing here:

The problem with the metric measurement as applied to architecture is that it violates three important parts of architectural composition/design:

1. Proportionality: The traditional (American Standard or British Imperial--which are slightly different from each other, as any American who has ever worked on an old Jaguar knows) system of measurement was created by people who did not use digital calculators or need to measure machine parts to micrometer tolerances. It was created to measure out human scale objects in proportion to each other without complex calculations. For instance, most simple divisions of a foot result in whole number increments of inches (1/2=6", 1/3=4", 1/4=3", 1/6=2", etc.), while the only whole-number division proportion of a metric unit is either 1/2 or 1/5. This, in my opinion makes metric an inferior tool for proportional design.

2. Ergonomics: related to proportionality, the traditional measurement systems are specifically oriented toward the ergonomics of human physiology. They developed out of obscurity for precisely this reason. The human mind is geared toward judging its perceived environment in relation to the scale of its own body, not an arbitrary convention defined by the distance light will travel in a very short period of time (a centimeter or meter). Traditional systems of measurement are specifically oriented toward the mind's intuitive grasp of scale.

3. Cognitive Reducibility: Anyone familiar with cognitive science and/or epistemology will tell you that the human mind has a limited number of slots in its active consideration buffer. The average number of cognitive units any one person can consider at any one time ranges from 5 to 9, with 7 being very typical (ever wonder why telephone numbers usually have 7 digits? that's why). You will sometimes hear this referred to as the "Crow Epistemology" (from an observation about crows that they are incapable of distinguishing members of groups of entities greater than three).
The Crow Epistemology in humans means that we have to go to great lengths to cognitively reduce the number of items we are considering at any one time when dealing with complex issues. Design measurements are one such case. It is much easier for me to remember that I am 6'-5" tall than to remember that I am 195.58 cm or 1.9558 m tall. the difference is between two cognitive units and six (including the decimal point). Similarly, the proportional and ergonomic relationships described above are likely to be more consistently applied for this same reason.

Before I get flamed for putting down the hallowed Metric System, let me state that I have experience in using SI on real projects in Australia, and have found the above to be true in practice (laying out building foundations in centimeters makes about as much sense as laying them out in multiples of half-inches--i.e. 975 cm or 768/2" vs. 32 feet). The primary value of SI applies to the sciences, where the above issues are not of high importance. Architecture, however is not science. I argue that adopting metric merely because our calculators don't do standard is a silly reason, and does harm to good design.

Actually, based on the above argument, I would propose that Metric would be a much better measurement system if it were modified in the following ways:
1.) Made into a base-12 system on all scales, rather than base-10
2.) Re-scaled to human ergonomics

A measurement system is like any tool--you've got to use the right one for the job. The right tool for the job of architecture is not metric. American Standard may not be the right tool for that job either (certainly debatable). However, it does have some inherently superior qualities with regard to architectural design. Archtitects throughout the ages have been trying to come up with an ideal measurement system for architecture (classical orders, Corbusier, etc.). None have totally succeeded yet. My argument was that the uniform, unthinking adoption of Metric will set that progress back, not contribute to it.

Now, I am not saying that Metric is a bad system of measurement. I am merely saying that it is not really well suited to doing architecture. There are ways it could be made more suitable, while retaining some of its inherent benefits, but that is another issue.

Additional note:
Some others have been stating that we need metric to have international standards of measurement. I argue that these people obviously have little experience dealing with countries other than their own. Nearly every nation which uses the metric system uses a slightly different version of it, just as the American version of British Imperial (known as American Standard) is not exactly the same as British Imperial. Measurement standards are great things to pay lip service to, but putting them into practice never seems to work out as perfectly as their proponents would like. Japanese metric, Australian Metric, and French Metric all have their quirks and eccentricities. Granted, these tend to be most pronounced at a small scale (auto parts, being a major one), but the point is important.

Standards of measurement are tools, nothing more. Different people use different tools for different jobs. The Metric Gestapo needs to start taking this into account, as do those who resolutely refuse to consider anything other than Imperial or Standard. There is plenty of intellectual laziness being displayed in both camps, on what is really a very simple issue. I brought this whole subject up just so that people would think about it, and maybe apply themselves to dreaming up a new standard superior to both.

J. Gregory Wharton
Architect / Philosopher
Seattle, Washington, USA

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