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Time for Drastic Changes in Tall Buildings? Experts Disagree
The New York Times - Friday, June 24, 2005


The day had been one of utter confusion, panic, even death. Terrorists had attacked the largest buildings in New York. And for months afterward, a task force of senior government officials met to reflect on the event, and to study how to make tall buildings safer. In the end, they produced a document calling for fundamental change in how they are built and operated.

The date of their report was Feb. 22, 1995, two years to the week after the first attack on the World Trade Center. More than six years later, on the morning of the next attack, very few of the recommendations had been put into effect. "It just didn't happen," said Patricia Lancaster, now the city buildings commissioner.

Yesterday, a federal agency released a 10,000-page draft final report on the collapse of the World Trade Center, including a set of recommendations for fundamental changes in the next generation of skyscrapers, and for emergency response. Having been struck twice, New York City has already passed Local Law 26, which anticipates and surpasses many of the federal recommendations. But faced with opposition from the real estate industry, the city has not required wider staircases.

Elsewhere, some of the early reactions to the new recommendations, from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, recall the history, if not the fate, of the reform effort after the 1993 attacks. Many structural engineers argue that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were so unusual that they should not propel drastic change.

"Tall buildings are extremely safe today, one of the safest places you can be," said W. Gene Corley, a structural engineer who led an earlier investigation into the World Trade Center attack, as well as an inquiry into the bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City.

He and William F. Baker, a structural engineer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago, said that as a result, changes in building codes will likely be modest. "I expect it will be more a case of refinements than wholesale changes," Mr. Baker said.

Leaders of the National Institute of Standards and Technology say that they have an ambitious program of meetings with building code experts and industry officials to push for changes that they believe will improve the safety of buildings faced not only with terrorist attacks, but also more routine hazards like earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes. The agency plans to hold a conference in September on how the building industry can reduce the risk.

"We already have begun working with the organizations that will be responsible for turning the recommendations into action," said Hratch Semerjian, the acting director of the institute.

Nationally, between 1989 and 1999, no more than five civilians were killed in 6,900 reported high-rise office building fires, according to statistics complied by the National Fire Protection Association. Those numbers - which do not include the attacks at the World Trade Center - are not large enough to produce wide-scale change in building codes, several engineers said.

"You can do anything you want, but you can't change a number that is already extremely low," Dr. Corley said.

In presenting the findings yesterday, S. Shyam Sunder, who led the federal investigation, rejected suggestions that the events at the trade center were too rare to provide useful lessons for other skyscrapers. The investigation used two approaches to study risks, he said. One was based on historical records. The second was "scenario driven," an effort to anticipate unusual events that could cause serious injury or death.

Dr. Sunder said that fully equipped firefighters - carrying nearly 100 pounds of gear up stairs - begin to reach their physiological limits about the 15th or 20th floor, and that it takes about two minutes to climb per floor. For people on the 60th floor of a building that has lost power, Dr. Sunder said, "help is actually a few hours away. We did not look at other buildings, but we are very confident in our recommendations."

Historically, major revisions in building codes have often followed catastrophes or spectacular fires, such as the Chicago Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in 1911, two major skyscraper fires in New York City in the early 1970's, and a deadly fire in 1980 at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. All told, hundreds of people died in those fires. Even so, the debate over code changes often drags on for years, as groups with competing interests attempt to influence the process, debating costs and benefits.

Jonathan Barnett, a professor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Center for Fire Safety Studies, said that many recommendations the standards institute has made would require extensive research before code standards could be drafted.

That research would cost tens of millions of dollars, he said, far more than the $16 million that the institute invested in the study. "There will be no significant change unless Congress throws money at this," he said. "It is not going to come from the private sector."

Ms. Lancaster, of the New York Department of Buildings, cited the example of using glow-in-the-dark paint in staircases, a feature of the trade center stairs that a number of people said had been helpful in their evacuation, and which the city recently required for all tall buildings. Deciding where and how much of the paint should be applied took nearly two years, Ms. Lancaster said.

Ms. Lancaster said that the city was determined not to let reform efforts fall into a bureaucratic torpor, and that it had already adopted a number of the recommendations called for by the federal inquiry. These include such changes as reinforced walls for staircases and elevators, more sprinklers, smoke control measures, and inspection of fireproofing. The question of expanding the width of staircases continues to be debated in New York because of cost concerns.

Dr. Corley, Mr. Baker and Dr. Barnett each agreed that many of the recommendations could work their way into model codes adopted by organizations like the National Fire Protection Association and the International Code Council, which local and state governments use as templates for their own codes.

Jack Murphy, an adviser to the National Fire Protection Association on high-rise safety, said that firefighters could provide powerful voices on the need for change, but that they are rarely involved.

The new standards will likely result in an immediate adjustment in the development of certain major skyscrapers, if they have not already been made. Mr. Baker, for example, is working on the structural design for the Trump Tower in Chicago. The Freedom Tower, which is to replace the World Trade Center, is also likely to integrate many of the recommendations, the engineers predicted.

The changes Mr. Baker is incorporating into these kinds of buildings include wider stairwells that have more robust walls, and refuge areas for the disabled to await assistance or for tired tenants to rest during an evacuation. He also is designing these towers with stronger connections between columns and beams, addressing one recommendation in yesterday's report.

"What we might do on a high-profile building or a building with special tenants is one thing," Mr. Baker said. "But if you want to do that in all tall buildings, I am not sure that is appropriate."


© Copyright 2005, The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.

Sally Regenhard,

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Monica Gabrielle,

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