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.