Skyscraper Safety Campaign - Must-Read Articles











Shortcuts to Safety

By Matthew Reiss (

Two and a half years after the worst tragedy
in skyscraper history, high rises are no safer.

At a public hearing for the National Commission on Terrorist Acts Upon the United States meeting in a college gymnasium, Sally Regenhard throws back her long blond hair, cocks her head, and stares at committee chairman Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey. "On 9-11 the cloak of competence was pulled off the City of New York," she says. Her late son Christian's Fire Department medals gleam from her lapel. "Safety codes treated a 100-story high-rise with the same guidelines as a ten-story building. Today very little has changed."

In the weeks following the tragedy Regenhard founded the Skyscraper Safety Campaign (SSC). "Our first goal was getting a federal investigation into why the towers collapsed," Regenhard says, "Initially no one wanted to know. We contacted everyone from the president on down—the governor, attorney general, senators, congressmen. Nobody in New York wanted to know why the World Trade Center collapsed. The mayor's office didn't answer me. Giuliani took no leadersilip role in calling for an investigation." While pushing for an official probe, the group stumbled into the arcane and distorted world of buildling codes and safety regulations. Last year the SSC filed suit against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—the WTC's owner—demanding that Port Authority-owned real estate be stripped of its immunity from city building and fire department jurisdictions.

A delicate balance exists between those who construct high-rise buildings and the people who live and work in them. The developer wants to get paid to put tenants inside, and occupants want to walk out in the same condition they went in. This equation was badly disrupted after September 11, when New Yorkers became newly concerned about spending their waking and sleeping hours too far from ground level. Yet two and a half years after the worst tragedy in the history of American real estate, and one year after New York City and State adopted new building codes, skyscrapers are no safer. No new city, state, or federal laws have substantially upgraded the safety of new or existing buildings because the codes regulating them are by-products of a complicated system of self-regulation. "The private sector designs, maintains, builds and operates skyscrapers," says Shyam Sunder who is leading the federal investigation into the WTC disaster for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). "And they develop and maintain the safety standards and codes."

Following 9-11 the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Structural Engineer Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers undertook a highly detailed analysis of the Twin Towers' collapse. They were critical of the steel floor-truss system, the failure to utilize impact-resistant enclosures around egress paths, and the grouping of emergency stairways in close proximity. These "may have played a role in allowing the buildings to collapse in the manner that they did, and in the inability of victims at and above the impact floors to safely exit," the report stated. However, it urged that these shortcomings "should not be regarded either as design deficiencies or as features that should be prohibited in future building codes."

On one of her frequent visits to Washington, Regenhard finally found someone willing to listen. She met Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York), chairman of the House Science Committee. After hearing testimony from firefighters and 9-11 survivors, the congressman helped to procure $16 million for an investigation by NIST, a division of the Department of Commerce. Although NIST has the power to subpoena witnesses, records, and evidence in the case, it was stressed that the institute was not empowered to lay blame for the collapse. "We support NIST," Regenhard says, adding, "It's better than nothing." A second hearing of Boehlert's committee led to the creation of a National Construction Safety Team (NCST) — modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board — to examine structural failures. Like the ongoing NIST investigation, the NCST would not seek to determine culpability or liability but instead ascertain the cause of construction-related incidents.

Going to Washington to find a cure for a local problemmay sound like a roundabout route, but New York's politically powerful real estate industry wields tremendous influence over building safety and economic development. Indeed the mission of the city's Department of Buildings (DOB) is not limited to safety but also includes streamlining the occupancy of new and existing office space. "We want to promote development at the same time we're ensuring public safety," says Patricia Lancaster, New York City Commissioner of Buildings. "But it's a difficult balance to achieve. It's something we come up against in our inspections, permits, in every aspect of the regulatory business."

Clearer lines between safety and economics appear to exist in other countries. According to Matthias Altwicker, a professor of architecture at New York Institute of Technology who practiced in Germany in the mid- 1990s, developers there are "less likly to sacrifice the user of the building for the need for floor space. You could not build the World Trade Center there. They're much stricter than the United States as far as the core of the building. Concrete is used a lot more than steel." Germany also has stricter requirements for fireproofing and distances to safety stairways. Because sprinkler systems are rarely used in Europe, Altwicker says, requirements for eixt floors and stairways become more important. "Depending on the height of the building you usually have to have two means of egress." For example, the Commerzbank in Frankfurt, by Foster and Partners, has three fire stairways, just as the Twin Towers did, even though the bank is about two-thirds the WTC's height and a fraction of its volume.

"The World Trade Center could not have been built in the United Kingdom," insists Ed Galea director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich in London. "The number of the staircases would have been insufficient. The nature of those staircases would not have met our requirements. We would have required concrete. You would have also needed lobbies on each floor to protect staircases from smoke. Also, the connections between the floor joists and upright columns would've been much more robust. It's all part of the U.K. building code." It's unlikely that the WTC could have been constructed in Japan either. "Buildings one hundred meters or higher are framed in reinforced concrete rather than steel," Tokyo structural engineer Masahiko Fukasawa says.

This raises a more troubling question: could the WTC have even been built on any block in New York City governed by building codes? Irving Polsky — who started working for the DOB in the late '60s and later served as executive engineer — says no. "There were people in the Buildings Department who were very unhappy with the World Trade Center's design," he says, "but they had no power to prevent it." Without the Port Authority's exemption from building regulations it's doubtful that the project could have been built in any Amrican city. "Whenever building inspectors visited the Trade Center, even if they issued summonses for violations...the Port didn't have to respond," says J. C. Calder—n, an archtect who testified to the city's Word Trade Center Building Code Task Force. (A Port Authority spokesman would only say that the PA currently "meets or exceeds" all building and fire codes.)

The task force, appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to review the city's building regulations, examined the NIST report to determine whether buildings should have additional safety requirements. In November 2002 he directed the DOB to begin considering the adoption of a "model" building code, a nationally standardized set of rules covering everything from plumbing to the width of emergency stairways to the required number of bathrooms for public buildings.

"Most code changes are the result of tragedies," says Michael Clemens, a New York representative for the International Code Council (ICC) which compiles building codes for most U.S. cities, states, and municipalities. Once a municipality adopts the ICC codes they become binding (along with any local amendments that jurisdictions enact to meet their specific needs). New York codes have long been an arcane mass of rules and regulations, filling thousands of pages, making corruption difficult to detect or address.

That began to change in 2002, when New York State became a member of the ICC and adopted its International Building Code. Although adopting the model code might help New York better organize and clarify its existing codes, it will not have any effect on safety according to Clemens. The code merely makes these provisions accepted business practice.

Last year Bloomberg's task force made 21 recommendations for improving building safety. In September the mayor chose 13 of these to send to the city council for possible ratification later this year. (The DOB is currently studying the rest.) Some of the mayor's recommendations include requiring that all existing office buildings over 100 feet tall install sprinkler systems by 2019 (except in cases of owners' "hardship" or if "impractical"); glow-in-the-dark exit signs; a temporary prohibition of open web steel joists in new nonresidential high-rises; and impact-resistant stairway and elevator enclosures using advanced building materials that have not yet been developed and tested. Although New York has been on high (orange) alert since the Department of Homeland Security's color-coding system went into effect, the mayor decided against recommending more costly structural redundancy enhancements, such as the concrete reinforcement of stairway and elevator shafts.

Changing codes to address tragedies is impracticable, asserts Vincent Dunn, former New York City deputy fire chief and now a consultant. "It's a slow process," he says. "Building codes change over the course of six-year cycles." Dunn looks at safety from a point of view that architects, inspectors, and gypsum salesmen almost never do: from the inside of a burning building. "The fire service believes there is a direct relation of fire resistance to mass of structure," he writes in an essay entitled "Why the World Trade Center Buildings Collapsed," on his Web site, "The structures that limit and confine fires best are reinforced concrete, pre-WWII buildings, such as housing projects and older high-rises like the Empire State Building. The more concrete, the more fire resistance; the more concrete, the less probability of total collapse."

Safety advocates say the real estate industry is handcuffed by this equation. In order to rent farther into the sky, structures need to liit the weight on each floor. In fact, the WTC marked a new day in both height and building techniques. "Conventional skyscrapers since the nineteenth century had been built with a skeleton of interior supporting columns that supports the structure," Dunn wrote. "The Twin Towers were radically differnt in structural design because the exterior walls were load-bearing.... First, they [post-war skyscrapers] eliminated the stone exterior wall. They replaced them with the 'curtain walls' of glass, sheet steel, or plastics.... Next, the masonry enclosure for stairways and elevators was replaced with several layers of Sheetrock. Then the smoke-proof masonry tower (core) was eliminated in the 1968 Building Code. It contained too much concrete weight and took up valuable floor space."

If codes merely define common practice, why not simply change them to provide greater safety? "Real estate interests are not proponents of a lot of new regulation because of costs," says Glenn Corbett, assistant professor of fire science at John Jay College of the City University of New York. Last year technical advisors to the SSC did succeed in gaining the approval of members of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), another prominent code group, for increasing stairwell widths in taller buildings from 44 to 55 inches so that occupants can walk down while firefighters are running up. "It's a no-brainier, right?" asks Corbett, who says the proposal was appealed by two prominent NFPA members - the U.S. General Services Administration (which manages code-exempt federal buildings across the country) and the private Building Owners and Managers Association - and NFPA's "standards council" subsequently quashed the amendment.

"A huge amount of building safety is self-enforced," says Carol Sigmund, an attorney who represents construction companies. "Many of us in the industry are horrified at this." Regenhard also questions this self-regulation: "Existing code groups are composed of builders, developers, financiers, and bureaucrats who know little about fire and life safety."

"The idea that the industry writes its own codes is absurd," says Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. "If we had a firehouse on every block we'd be a lot safer. But reality has to come into consideration to some degree. The question is, What is appropriate safety regulation for something more than normal conditions?" The ICC's 15 rule-making committees, he contends, consist "priimarily of 'city people.' You can call them bureaucrats, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're terrible people. They may know very well what they're doing," He emphasized that fire department officials are well represented. "Does the real estate industry have representation on these committees? Of course it does. But the overwhelming number sitting at the table are city people - representatives of buildings, fire, and other departments." (Dunn points out that fire officials don't get paid leave to attend code functions, whereas for lobbyists in the construction industry "it's their full-time job.")

Codes also reflect the design culture they operate in. "In the last fifty years," Dunn says, "architects have been spending all their energy removing mass from buildings." Consequently structural redundancy appears to have little chance of being seriously considered by code groups. Instead of prescribiing concrete, current city codes allow builders to use layers of gypsum or any substance that achieves prescribed levels of fire resistance. "The gypsum and steel industries would go nuts if you said that all buildings had to be built out of concrete, " Clemens says, adding, "They would be a lot uglier too."

While the issaes ruised by safety advocates have reesulted in some code changes, one prominent Manhattan developer has significantly addressed their concerns. Larry Silverstein, who signed a 99-year lease for the WTC six weeks before the attack, is currently seeking an insurer for the recently unveiled Freedom Tower. Meunwhile, he and his architects at Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) have begun construction of the new Seven WTC across the street from Ground Zero.

The old Seven ignited and burned on September 11, before it shuddered and collapsed onto West Broadway in a cloud of debris later that afternoon. The new building will be quite different than its predecessor. Seven II — also 47 stories high — will seek to establish a new level of safety in New York. According to the head of SOM's technical group, Carl Galioto, the building will employ a reinforced concrete core, two fire standpipes for water to a sprinkler system with a 60-minute supply (doubling existing code requirements for 30 minutes), exit stairways 20 percent wider than required, and a common transfer floor to allow occupants to exit the building — at any of four points — directly to the street. Outside air will enter through filtered intakes at the top of the building — a measure designed to protect against biological contamination.

Galioto says these voluntary measures illustrate Silverstein's dedication to safety, but attorney Sigmund speculates that such precautions are more likely to reflect requirements of the developer's insurers. Given the vast amount of press coverage focused on the site, it's likely that buildings at Ground Zero will exceed existing safety codes. But what about the scores of other high-rises (new and old) not subject to the same scrutiny?

With plans for the World Trade Center's replacements proceeding rapidly, the SSC suit against the Port Authority was dismissed in December. Judge Kibbie Payne ruled that there was no case in controversy — that the death nearly 3,000 people comprised no "special injury" with which to challenge the Port Authority's role as a quasi-governmental entity. "The judge just took the Port Authority's word for it and provided no legal reasoning to justify his decision," says Thomas Shanahan, attorney for the group. "We'll be filing an appeal." If the Skyscraper Safety Campaign's appeal fails and code issues aren't given an adequate public airing in the courts, then what gets built at Ground Zero, or anywhere else, will not be monuments to those who couldn't get out on 9-11 but to the profits made by putting them in.


© Copyright 2004 Metropolis Magazine

Sally Regenhard,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470

Monica Gabrielle,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470