Friday, May 2, 2008

Tall Buildings, Skinny Stairs?

By Andrea Galyean

New York, May 2--

How wide are you?

I just the measured the widest part of me (my shoulders) and I’m 16 inches across. Add a couple inches on each side for normal movement, and I need at least 20 inches of width to walk down an office hallway or stairwell. But I’m a good bit smaller than the average Manhattan office worker. In fact, a salesman at the Wall Street location of the popular Men’s Wearhouse stores reports that the shoulders on the most commonly sold suit size in his shop (a 48) are 23 inches across when filled out by an actual person.

So if this suit-wearing average guy and I wanted to walk down a stairwell at the same time – if there was a fire in a high-rise, for instance, and we were trying to get out – we’d need 47 stairwell inches. Two people closer to his size would need 54 inches. But what if, instead of people filing downstairs side-by-side, there were also firefighters coming up? Firefighters wear big suits and carry a lot of gear, so they take up more room. How wide would that stairwell need to be?

That question is at the heart of a dispute about New York City building codes, which are being revised this year. Real estate development groups say the old code is wide enough, but some building and fire safety experts disagree.

The New York standards in place since 1938 require that most stairwells in commercial high-rises be 44 inches wide. That gives two lanes of traffic using 22 inches each. But those requirements are based on assumptions about the size and speed of occupants and are designed for partial evacuations – when only a few floors of a building are affected - and they have rarely been tested at higher capacities.

The largest building evacuation in New York City was when 15,400 people escaped from the World Trade Center (WTC) towers after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. That event demonstrated how the assumptions of the building codes translated into real-life.

John Labriola, a WTC survivor who used the stairs to escape from the 71st floor of the north tower, contributed his recollections of that day to the Smithsonian Museum. “We walked down two by two,” Labriola said in his statement. “Whenever necessary we would press ourselves into a single file line to let [injured] people get by… Around the 35th floor we started meeting a steady stream of firefighters walking up and had to press into single file again.”

Labriola also took photographs during the evacuation. One of the most famous, taken within the stairwell, shows civilians flattened against the wall as firefighters pass. The stairwells in the north tower were 44 inches wide.

Glenn Corbett, a fire sciences professor at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a consultant to the New York Department of Buildings committee that proposed post-WTC changes to the building code, thought the message was clear. "Out of all the issues, one of the no-brainers was the issue of stairway width," said Corbett. He refers to Labriola’s images as evidence; "If you look at those photos, with firefighters coming up and civilians coming down, the people have to turn sideways."

National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) analyzed the WTC collapse and made 30 recommendations about how high-rise buildings might be stronger, safer, and easier to get out of. NIST investigators cited Labriola’s photographs and testimony from other survivors in advising that high-rise buildings use wider stairwells. They found that WTC evacuees moved twice as slowly as had been estimated and concluded that if the towers, which were less than half full on September 11, had been fully occupied, 14,000 people would have died. “To achieve a significantly faster total evacuation at full capacity would have required increases in egress capacity – the number and width of exits and stairways,” said lead NIST investigator Dr. S. Shyam Sunder in 2005.

That was not the first such proposal. Jake Pauls, a fire safety specialist from Silver Springs, Maryland, has conducted years of research on building evacuations. He concluded in 2005 that the 44-inch minimum “was flawed, and known to be flawed a few decades ago.” Indeed, a report sponsored by NIST in 1995 said that the assumptions about how long it takes people to get out of a skyscraper were wrong. That report came from another high-profile evacuation: the escape from the WTC after it was bombed in 1993. And in 2004, a former WTC director told the 9/11 Commission that the stairwells in the towers should have been wider.

Based on his studies, Pauls proposed a new standard minimum of 56 inches. As Corbett explained, "56 inches gives you the ability for counterflow, the ability for people to pass. It's an obvious solution. Any four-year-old can figure that out."

The New York Buildings Department agreed – for a while. As late as May 2007, proposed code revisions included wider stairwells, but the version due to go into effect this year returned to the old standard. What happened? This is where the numbers change from inches and people to square footage and cash.

In New York, especially in landlocked Manhattan, the size of a building is limited by the size of the lot – and those lots are expensive. So developers try to maximize the square footage available for rent.

When the Buildings Department was drafting the new building code, it “requested NIST’s input and expertise in five specific areas,” including stair widths, according to a 2005 press release. But the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), whose members own 80 percent of North American office space, “blocked every attempt” to implement NIST’s suggestion, according to Corbett. An advocacy memo from BOMA to its members asked them to work “at the state and local level to ensure that the NIST recommendations are not used as justification for introducing unnecessary new requirements in state and local building codes.”

Representatives of BOMA and the Real Estate Board of New York volunteered on the city committee to decide egress requirements for the new building code, where they successfully fought to keep the old width rather than give up floor space for stairs.

Woody Pascal, chief of staff to Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, who chairs the City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee, recalls the debate. “There was an issue with the stairs, yes. Basically, if the stairs were wider, the rooms would be smaller.”

The Buildings Department notes that the codes specify a minimum only and says developers can always build wider stairs, as the Durst Organization is doing with the new Bank of America building in Midtown. But few are willing to forgo potential profits in the current market, where luxury offices on Wall Street can rent for several hundred thousand dollars per square foot per year.

Frederic Schwarz, a Manhattan-based architect, has worked on a number of high-rise projects in recent years. He said developers “want to do the right things, but only to a point." He was a leader in the early efforts to redesign the WTC site and thinks a lot about building safety. But he doesn’t even try to design wider stairs for commercial clients. “Forget it,” he said, “That’s not even a conversation. You’re fighting for every inch.”

And so, the 2008 New York City Building Codes will go into effect on July 1. The required minimum width for exit stairwells in high-rises will be: 44 inches.

Andrea Galyean is a graduate journalism student at NYU. She holds a B.A. in theatre from the University of Maine and has a complicated job history. She was, most recently, the Outreach Manager for Phoenix Public Art. Her work has appeared in the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Arts. She takes the stairs.

1 comment:

Building Inspectors Adelaide said...

Having tall buildings and skinny stairs is never good for an establishment as tragedies such as fire and earthquake can happen anytime. Residents and tenants may have a hard time getting out of the place when the elevator is down.