This paper offers an insight into the emergence, development and enforcement of building bye-laws in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It shows how some organisations and designers sought to by-pass them and suggests that the Cheap Cottages exhibition held in 1905 in Letchworth reflects such an approach. It summarises the complex context in which nineteenth century building regulations emerged. The legal apparatus is presented as a background against which the cottage exhibition initiative can be explained and understood. The paper also highlights the crucial role of the press in promoting the view that regulations were too stringent and contributed to the rural housing crisis. It also shows that two parallel processes were underway: on the one hand, the development of public policy for health and housing, on the other hand practical experiments which sought to address the same issues, albeit in different ways.