Monday, April 28, 2008

As Debate over Stairs' Safety Requirements Continues, New Building Far Surpasses Code

By Chad Smith

New York, May 2 -- For the past five years, the New York City Department of Buildings has continually updated and revised its laws on skyscrapers, driven partly by lessons learned on safety after 9/11.

And each year, it has had a chance to make two particular revisions, which many firefighters, architects, professors, 9/11 survivors and engineers have long said could save more lives in a skyscraper catastrophe: wider staircases and more sets of them.

Each year, on the issue, the Buildings Department has done nothing.

“Wider staircases can mean the difference between life or death," according to Vincent Dunn, a retired, 42-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department. "These are people's lives, and you have a Department of Buildings interested in doing frills."

Walk into almost any skyscraper in this city and the staircases will be 44 inches wide, with three sets of major staircases. Experts say this width and this number of sets don’t offer enough room for the quick, efficient evacuation of thousands of tenants — when seconds are crucial — and cite much of what was learned in September 11th’s aftermath.

Over a dozen calls were put in to the Department of Buildings on the staircase issue over the last two weeks; spokespeople there promised to get back with answers, but the department never returned a single call. New laws on the staircase issue haven’t been passed, the Buildings Department has said in recent years, because it can’t gain “consensus” from those representing owners and developers, who stand to lose money on the potentially rentable space that would be lost if staircases were given more prominence.

But one building owner, Bank of America, and its developer, the Durst Organization, are doing things differently. They are taking the lead on staircase safety, surpassing city codes and forgoing the profit that could be made if they simply built to code.

Bank of America’s new 54-story headquarters near Bryant Park will have ideal staircases when it comes to safety, many experts believe.Larry Grayson, a Bank of America spokesman, said his company had employees who had died and survived 9/11 in mind when the bank decided to build the building and staircases this way.

One of those employees might have been Chris O’Driscoll, a former high level Bank of America manager who on the morning of Sept. 11 was on the 82nd floor of the north tower when the first plane hit. O’Driscoll escaped that day and in an e-mail message had this to say about wider staircases and his ordeal:

“If you wanted to evacuate a 100-plus story building in a hurry, then two abreast” — which is barely what 44 inches affords — “is not going to be sufficient. I believe if we had been aware of the possibility that the north tower was going to collapse, [many would have panicked and] it would have been much more difficult to escape within the confined space of the staircase. Any additional space would assist in the evacuation of a tall building.”

The staircases at the new Bank of America headquarters will be 66 inches wide, or 33% wider than what the city code requires, according to Jordan Barowitz, director of external affairs at the Durst Organization, the building’s developer.

According to experts, that’s enough room for three people to descend comfortably side by side and provides enough room for counterflow. An ideal example of counterflow is one in which firefighters can efficiently move up the staircases with heavy equipment as tenants fleeing walk down. Counterflow was a problem on 9/11 in the twin towers’ narrow staircases.

“I remember walking down the staircase two abreast,” O’Driscoll said, “and that once the firemen walked up we had to make way for them, so we progressed one at a time for a while. There were frequent delays….”

Bank of America’s staircases will be encased by two and a half feet of steel-reinforced concrete walls. After 9/11 the Buildings Department did mandate stronger materials be used for the encasing of skyscraper staircase walls — the twin towers’ were made of lightweight gypsum board and didn’t stand a chance on impact — but Dunn, the retired fire chief, said that there’s no higher standard than steel-reinforced concrete. He called Bank of America and Durst’s choice “impressive.”

The reinforced staircase will be located at the building’s center, its “core,” according to Barowitz. The core is one of the strongest parts of the building, meant to better preserve life-saving infrastructure, like staircases, in case of disaster. It’s a reaction to what happened on 9/11, Barowitz said.

“Our staircases in the core will be able to withstand a massive impact,” he said.

Furthermore, the Bank of America staircases will be air pressurized, which means if heavy smoke is circulating on one of its office floors, and someone on that floor opens the staircase door to escape, the choking smoke won’t follow him in. The staircase’s air is maintained at a higher pressure than the office floor’s and will essentially bar most of the smoke from entering.

Air pressurized stairs are not required by the city’s building code.

Barowitz said there will also be “safe havens” in the staircases. That is, at each floor, there will be an extra large landing. Disabled people or those who need to rest can take breaks as they evacuate and not hold anyone else up.

This extra measure is crucial, according to Glenn Corbett, professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“You need a place to attend to someone who can’t egress as quick,” Corbett said. “It’s not fair for one person to put others in the worst kind of danger when it can be avoided.”

Asked how many separate sets of staircases there will be at the Bank of America tower, Barowitz didn’t have an exact number. He said there will be “many, many sets of staircases. The number exceeds what’s required, I can tell you that.”

Bank of America and the Durst Organization wouldn’t say how much money they could have made if the space devoted to more staircases was used for rentable space. Grayson did say this:

“One of our core values at Bank of America is ‘Do the right thing.’ The value of square footage potentially devoted to rentable space was far outweighed by the added safety afforded by the staircases designed wider than code requirements.”

With so many voices lined up for wider staircases, it may be hard for some to imagine why they haven’t been mandated in this city. But there are some reasons.

The counter belief behind not giving staircases more prominence is a fire-fighting strategy called “defend in place,” which essentially means, "If there’s an emergency, stay put.” If there’s a fire on the fifth floor of a skyscraper, tenants on 25 need not evacuate and potentially expose themselves to unnecessary risk, such as perhaps being trampled as they evacuate.

Accordingly, many of the buildings in New York City were built to contain fires to a single floor. The staircases were not meant to accommodate a large percentage of the building’s population, as they were forced to do September 11.

"If you have a building filled with 50,000 people, I don't care how wide your stairways are or if you have two or three major staircases,” said Ron Burton, vice president of codes, standards and regulatory affairs at Building Owners and Managers Association International. “It’s going to take a heck of a long time to get everyone out. We still, as we always have, believe in defend in place.”

Burton’s organization, which represents thousands of building owners, has been pointedly criticized in the past by fire safety experts, and has been accused of standing in the way of wider staircases.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re ‘standing in the way of wider staircases,’” he said. “This is an ongoing, complex issue, and we’re all still exploring it. Obviously, we care about people’s safety or we wouldn’t be in this business.”

Still, Burton said, his building managers association believes that 44 inches are wide enough. His organization also believes that three staircases in skyscrapers are adequate because, again, every person shouldn’t be in those staircases in an emergency anyway, he said.

Dunn disagreed.

"High-rise staircases," he said, "are still designed based on the belief that a fire will be confined to one floor; therefore, they need not have the capacity to hold all the building's occupants in an emergency. But remember the Titanic and the limited number of lifeboats? Same idea. Staircase design is still based on the building being fireproof, which many in the fire service, including me, believe is no longer true."

Burton said that the only way his association would change its beliefs is if there were "cross-benefit analysis" — authoritative sources with hard proof, and much of it — showing that wider staircases and more sets of them are worth the extra financial and structural burden and make skyscrapers safer, which he is yet to see.

Dunn said that it’s about more than such analysis and meeting the minimal requirements, “The current New York City codes are just the letter of the law,” he said, “not the spirit.”

Chad Smith is currently pursuing an M.A. in journalism at New York University in the Reporting NY program. Growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, Smith has always been fascinated with New York City. The graffiti, the grit, the gossip, the haves, the haven’ts, the talented, the beautiful, and the ugly. Smith hopes to see it all and weave it all into his work. Before NYU, he wrote for several newspapers, most notably The Villager based in Downtown Manhattan, where he wrote investigative, hard news and arts pieces. Recently, Smith worked as a fact checker for Dow Jones, but he is more excited than ever to be reporting again.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Designing for Safety

By Erika A. Parkins

New York, May 2 -- Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, LLP was the only architecture firm in New York to lose one of their employees in the World Trade Center attacks. They also won the bid to design Seven World Trade Center, the first building to be rebuilt on the site. But whether their model efforts will set the safety standard for the city remains to be seen.

“We've done all sorts of extremes to make this a building that is responsible in every possible way,” David Childs, an architect at SOM who worked on Seven World Trade Center, said on NPR shortly after it was built.

“It has all of the safety redundancy features that one can imagine, that is safe long enough for people to get out if there is a fire, or a hurricane that breaks glass, or whatever disasters could happen,” Childs said. “So I think we've made a tremendous leap forward for how we build skyscrapers in the United States.”

Architects have long been design innovators, exploring new ways to work with materials and structures to meet people’s basic needs for as long as the concept of shelter. From the use of masonry in the 12th century to steel in the 19th and 20th centuries, designers have helped to set the standard for the way we live and work.

The attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 were an opportunity for designers to innovate, once again, ideas about the way we work and live. The primary issues after the attacks were terrorism and safety. Yet, as the years increase between 2001 and now, it has become apparent that designers can consider safety but cannot work with fear.

“We, rank high in paranoia,” said Rick Bell, president of the Architectural Institute of America in New York. “Maybe not the highest in the world, but we are certainly up there. I see a diminishment of that over the past two years, though it intensified immediately after the attacks,” he said.

As far as continuing to innovate or design for safety: “I don’t see a competition. We’re nowhere on that.”

As many New Yorkers, the design community has effectively moved on from the issues of September 11, 2001 but, not without struggle and change.

The attacks on the World Trade Center helped push improved building codes through faster. The nexus of community activists in the public sphere, such as Sally Regenhard and the Skyscraper Safety Campaign; designer input such as the recommendations put forth by SOM and the AIA; and, government inquiry into the collapse of the World Trade Center, provided the impetus to seriously examine what could be done to improve safety standards in high-rise buildings. As the old saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease: because of the confluence of concern from all corners, particularly the public sector, codes that had been in limbo for 10 years were reworked and passed into law in two years.

“If the public was more interested in the built environment and pressured and acted upon political leaders and the building industry to build better, buildings would be better,” said J.C. Calderon, an architect who was also an advisor to the Skyscraper Safety Campaign. “But, the public does not consider themselves a part of the building process. It would be more beneficial if more people saw architecture as a public good.”

On July 1 of this year, New York City’s new building codes will go into effect. Unfortunately, all of the building code changes brought about by the World Trade Center attacks do not directly affect the buildings that will be rebuilt on the site.

The main reason the World Trade Center was not up to code was because it did not have to be. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey governs the World Trade Center site, and is not under New York City jurisdiction. The Department of City Planning, the Department of Buildings and the New York Police and Fire Departments could cite as many violations as they wanted, but it was always the Port Authority’s choice to comply.

“9/11 was not only a major failure on a federal level, a state level, a New York City level and certainly on the Port Authority level,” Regenhard said. “I’ve never known the Port Authority to be concerned about anyone’s safety, especially in connection to the World Trade Center. Those buildings were above the law.”

A system of checks and balances should exist among city agencies, developers, contractors, engineers and architects, so that no one arm in the process of making a building, has more control over critical aspects and functions than another. However, in New York, the system has been flouted through political connections, money and sheer oversight, as the recent resignation of New York City Department of Buildings commissioner, Patricia Lancaster, suggested.

“It’s about the money, that’s all it is,” said Frederic Schwartz, an architect who has worked with the city and other designers to think of ways to redevelop the World Trade Center site.

Money is very influential, and when it is time for a building to finally be erected, the developer calls many of the shots. They try to match the aesthetic mind of the architect to the desires of the public, in the most profitable way.

“It would always be beneficial if more people saw architecture as a public conversation it would inspire architects and developers to do better buildings,” Calderon said. “But since there is no critique, or very little critique, in the media or in the public as to the success of buildings the developers behind those buildings don’t get the impression that the public cares and won’t invest in their buildings to make them better.” Calderon concluded,

“Investors and developers won’t spend more money if they don’t have to and they won’t do it unless they think the public wants it.”

Developers in New York have been resistant since September 11, 2001, to including safety measures such as wider stairwells. According to the architects and engineers interviewed, the developers’ resistance is due to not wanting to lose square footage on rentable floor space. The image of developers and real estate investors could use a positive boost since they do not have the best public image; their concerns narrowly generalized to more profit and less on the bottom line on construction costs.

No developers were able to return comment in time for this publication.

In the end however, developers, outside of those on the former World Trade Center site, may no longer have a choice in whether or not to include some of the improved safety standards in the new building codes. New construction, at minimum, will be required to subscribe to minimum structural, accessibility, sustainability and fire protection standards such as requiring fire sprinklers and detectors in all buildings and improving escape routes. The code also allows more room for innovation with new materials and construction techniques as long as they meet the requirements of the building codes.

The draft outline of the new construction codes includes how a higher building standard can be achieved in a cost-effective manner. A number of agencies representing the real estate, design, construction, engineering and trade industries were a part of the process to update the codes and make them more tenable to the city’s needs. The dismissive claim of safety features being too expensive or extraneous should, in theory, no longer stand.

Older construction will also have to meet the new building code requirements in the next few years; no structure will be grandfathered in.

Structural engineers have been very instrumental in thinking about the design of buildings and creating safety measures for the structure and thinking about egress. Measures include, but are not limited to, the widening of stairwells, the introduction of sky lobbies, and elevators that firefighters can use in case of an emergency. However engineers are very cognizant of not working under the assumption of terror. First and foremost, the buildings have to function and they need to figure out the best ways that can happen.

In the seven years since the World Trade Center attacks, terrorism has taken a back seat within the design community, as other threats become more looming, such as global warming and the need for environmental preservation.

Designers and engineers have turned their attention to sustainable development- another tenet of the new building codes that also affects the way we all ultimately live. Though not mutually exclusive to the issue of safety, it is the more pressing, tangible threat the design community is thinking about and one in which the public can get behind and become involved.

“Global warming is another 9/11 because in a sense, global warming is the potential for many 9/11s and we need to prepare our buildings accordingly,” Calderon said. “What’s encouraging is that architecture is talking about these problems, now.”

“Safety is a basic requirement of a building,” said Calderon. “But building’s can’t just be safe, it has to be something more to have any value. Ideally it goes beyond and inspires us toward greater levels of happiness and grace.”

Erika Parkins is a student at New York University who has studied urban planning and real estate. She feels safe in New York's skyscrapers.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Through the Haze: the Truth about 9/11 Air

by Mike Weiss

New York, April 30 - “I lived downtown in Battery Park City before 9/11, a couple of blocks south,” said Craig Hall. “On 9/11 I took my children to school that morning, one to nursery, one to PS 89. I came out of my son’s nursery the first plane had just gone in. I walked south back to Battery Park, I was standing and . . . then I saw the second plane go in. I watched it fly down West Street and then go into the second tower just above my head . . . I grabbed my children, one was in a stroller and I ran for my life. We were caught on the edge of the dust cloud. Luckily we ran north and the wind for some reason that day the wind blew south, and it saved us.”

Hall is president of the World Trade Center Residents Coalition, and on 9/11 as far as he knew, he and his family were safe. He knows better now. Because no government agency warned him about the dangers from 9/11 dust he went back to his apartment a few days after the tragedy and over the next five weeks tried cleaning the apartment himself.

“The place was covered, dust everywhere – the windows were open.”

Severe allergies, nosebleeds, 30 percent decreased lung capacity – as well as the thyroid surgery his wife has endured - are all common signs of the effects of breathing in the toxins from 9/11. The approximately 3,000 direct deaths on that day can be blamed on the terrorists, but who is responsible for the approximately 10,000 people suffering physical health impairments because of the air they breathed in soon after?

Even if the causes of 9/11 air contamination are gone, there is now a new hazard in the air. The unprecedented construction boom in lower Manhattan has produced 35 new buildings since 9/11 and many more are under construction. Idling diesel concrete mixers, bulldozers, cranes, trash-haulers – all spew their toxins into residential areas. And all this dust from demolition and construction activity seems like and eerie replay of 9/11, where a seemingly unconcerned government just stands by as the populace takes the brunt of a new and unknown health hazard in its midst.

Christine Todd Whitman and the EPA

Soon after the events of 9/11, on September 18, 2001, Christine Todd Whitman, in her role as Administrator of the federal EPA, released a statement often used in subsequent accusations against her. Still supported by the EPA (, the statement reads: "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink."

Yet the day before, on September 17, 2001, an internal EPA memo from their Region 2 World Trade Center Emergency Response Activities to Date series states just the opposite. Released through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project, the EPA memo states: “The highest [asbestos] levels came from a monitor located one-half block from ground zero, demonstrating the need for rescuers to wear appropriate protective gear.”

Instead of making this memo public and alerting people to a hazardous waste danger, as is the clearly stated responsibility of the EPA by powers granted through the National Contingency Plan, Administrator Whitman did just the opposite; she reassured the public that the air was officially deemed safe. Thousands of New Yorkers are now paying the price.

How do we know people got sick because of 9/11 dust?

There are three main centers for studying people who have sought medical care for conditions they believed were caused by 9/11. The Mount Sinai Medical Monitoring Program is the largest and screens all Ground Zero workers who have come in for help. As of December 2006, this was 9,442 “responders” - workers who were performing their jobs as part of the 9/11 rescue and recovery – but not firefighters. The FDNY runs its own medical monitoring unit near their headquarters in Brooklyn. The third center is for all non-responders such as residents, office workers, and students. This is the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center, and from its main clinic in Bellevue Hospital has so far cared for about 2,400 patients.

In a report published in Environmental Health Perspectives in December 2006, the Mount Sinai experts reported numerous respiratory problems in the 9,442 people they studied. Sixty-nine percent had new or worsened symptoms while performing WTC work. “Forced vital capacity” (FVC), a measurement of lung functioning, was five times worse than in the general U.S. population. Overall respiratory symptoms and abnormalities were, “significantly associated with early arrival at the site.”

At the WTC Environmental Health Center, director Joan Reibman admits, “how do we know these illnesses are WTC-related or not? There’s a lot we don’t know.”

However, she took part in a New York State Department of Health survey which began soon after 9/11 and was completed a year and half later. In it, residents around Ground Zero showed increased symptoms and shortness of breath, symptoms which were new to this population.

In her early work with the WTC Environmental Health Center, Dr. Reibman first saw patients with asthma and other pulmonary symptoms as well as many people with sinus inflammations. More recently, the medical conditions she sees have begun expanding to other areas of the body. Now, more people are coming in with endocrine problems, various cancers, and mental health conditions related to post traumatic stress from witnessing events related to 9/11.

“We see a whole spectrum. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed,” she said.

What was the government thinking?

“There was a lot of flag-waving,” said Joel Kupferman, director of the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project about the days after 9/11. “A lot of pressure from the top to admit that the country didn’t take a hit.”

Dave Newman, an Industrial Hygienist with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, and a former member of the EPA’s WTC Expert Technical Review Panel, said, “just look at the whole record of the Bush administration on regulatory cut-backs and especially on environmental issues.”

Then there is the rush to construction. Thirty-five new buildings have been constructed in lower Manhattan since 9/11 and more are planned. This speed has contributed to the 18 construction-related deaths in 2006, 12 in 2007, and 13 so far in only the first four months of this year. For builders and supporters of this construction, air quality regulations only seem to get in the way.

The lack of credibility from government inspectors is sometimes painfully obvious. Lynda Caspe lives on the top floor of a building on Franklin Street, a few blocks south of Canal Street. Broken skylights in her apartment allowed 9/11 dust to accumulate in her apartment, and when she contacted the city’s Department of Environmental Protection for help, they sent over someone to take a look.

“I asked him where’s your equipment,” Caspe related. “’What equipment,’ he said, ‘I’m just looking.’ Then he said, ‘it doesn’t look dusty to me!’.”

“I asked him if he wanted to see the roof, so we went up to the roof. There were piles of it all over the place so I asked him about it. ‘Doesn’t look dusty to me,’ he said!”

Caspe then hired a lawyer who knew an EPA inspector and this inspector was able to arrange for a proper inspection. Using high-quality air monitoring equipment, the EPA inspection revealed high levels of asbestos in the samples in Caspe’s apartment, and the EPA soon after agreed to clean her apartment.

When asked if she has trouble believing anything the government says now, Caspe laughed, “I believed George Bush when he said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction so you know something’s wrong with my mind!”

The community responds

On Sunday April 13, 2008, in the auditorium of the Borough of Manhattan Community College near the WTC site, community groups came together to hear testimony from a panel of residents, professionals, and government officials involved in the 9/11 aftermath.

In Chinese, Spanish, and Polish translations, an audience of about 120 listened as panel members openly expressed their anger at the government and the despair they felt. Primary criticisms of the government included not alerting the public of dangers the government knew about and for not taking care of the medical expenses people have now. These expenses can run into hundreds of dollars a month for people exposed to the air at 9/11 or to the dust in the weeks afterwards.

Expressing the widely-felt sense of betrayal, audience member Alex Sanchez asked the panel, “we helped this country get up when it was on its knees and now we have to beg for help? It shouldn’t have to be this way.”

Lea Geronimo, a pretty 37-year-old who looks in her twenties, was an office worker near the Stock Exchange on 9/11. Now she has numerous health issues which include bronchitis, gynecological cysts, neurological deteriorations, and patches of psoriasis, whose scabs litter her face, stomach, and arms.

“It pisses me off,” Geronimo said. “The whole world economy was supposed to be in flux. Most of us had this feeling of camaraderie, ‘I need to get my office together.’ We could have left, the residents could have left, everybody, the students, but we all stayed and we did our part. Now we need the government to fund our health care and to do studies, real studies,” she said.

When asked if she felt the government was more honest now in reporting and alerting the public to air quality hazards, she said, “it doesn’t matter any more. Now we are the evidence.”

Air quality today

The Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center is supposed to be monitoring air quality for the numerous construction sites in lower Manhattan. However, this ad hoc government agency is not accountable to any other and is not responsible for reporting their data to the public. Of the data they do post on their web site, it’s unclear how they collect it or at what times of the day. Since they do not respond to media requests for information, it’s impossible to clear these issues up.

The agency that is officially responsible for monitoring air quality, as mandated in the 1970s Clean Air Act, is the federal EPA. Because the Ground Zero area is no longer considered an emergency hazard site, air monitoring has reverted back to standard monitoring procedures which call for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to establish air-monitoring stations and to report their data to the EPA.

Because these procedures are mandated by law, it’s easier to see how the state does its testing, even as limited as it is. For example, the closest state air monitoring station to the 9/11 site is located near City Hall at one Pace Plaza, not a good thing for the residents who live across the street from Ground Zero construction. Also, all the state air monitoring stations are located on rooftops, far away from the diesel engines on the ground. In addition, the state is only required to report its data as averaged over a 24-hour period. This means that the air quality on cool nights when construction stops is given the same statistical weight as the air quality during a hot summer day when construction machines are running full blast.

Gretchen Ferenz, the director of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, has done a study which looked into the air quality in lower Manhattan. The initial purpose of her study, as part of a training program for her students, was to see if vegetation effected the way particles behaved in the atmosphere. Specifically, they were looking to see if the presence of trees and other plants reduced or had any effect on the way particulate matter is suspended in the air.

By chance, Ferenz’s study required her to compare her own air monitor readings taken at ground level to data being reported by the state air monitoring equipment, which is all located on the rooftops of buildings. Even though she is quick to point out she is not a public health specialist and her study of particulate matter in the air should not be used to make any statements about public health, she said, “let’s just say our results are consistent (with the state’s), at a certain level they don’t change much. But we found that at intersections, when the light is red? Zooooooom - our readings are off the chart.”

Joseph Zadroga’s comments, delivered at the 9/11 Community Health Forum on April 13, 2008. Zadroga is the father of former NYPD detective James Zadroga, who died as a result of his exposure at the WTC site

Mike Weiss is a former finance analyst for
the City of New York and an intern reporter for the Narragansett Times of Rhode Island. He is currently studying Biomedical Journalism at New York University.