September 26, 2001
The WTC victims were killed not just by terrorists, but by the buildings themselves. Buildings that tall are very difficult to evacuate, rescue people from, or fight fires in. Intense fire in tall steel buildings causes collapse in about 2 hours, and the scale of the WTC ensured that collapse would be catastrophic. Size/height is just one of the ways we make our built environment -- buildings, bridges, tunnels, or football stadiums -- unsafe. Some engineers have already declared the Age of the Skyscraper over. But considering developer profits, architectural machismo, and interest in corporate power symbols, it's not a sure bet. Symbols, of course, make the most attractive targets for terror.
Since the WTC, the structural collapse of large buildings can no longer be considered just a theoretical possibility. It may be possible to do a better job with smoke detectors, sprinklers, standpipes, and other fire systems. Evacuation without elevators should be fast, easy, and accessible to the frail and handicapped. Building materials need to have the lethality designed out of them. The asbestos that was once considered a safety feature in buildings is now considered a health threat. The glass windows that make buildings glitter can cut people to shreds when bombed. Too often building materials and furnishings are sources of toxic smoke during a fire. Ventilation systems are also key to safe and healthful buildings. Properly designed and maintained, they can protect people from threats ranging from formaldehyde to Legionnaires' Disease. Done wrongly, they can be vehicles for biological and chemical agents, smoke, and carbon monoxide.
Do your municipality's zoning, building, and fire codes impose effective safety requirements on tall structures? How safe are large buildings in your area?
- Engineering News-Record, "Experts Debate Future of the Skyscraper in Wake of Disaster," (9/24/01).
- Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (Lehigh Univ.): 610-758-3515, email. Chairman: Ron Klemencic, president of Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire, a Seattle engineering firm, 206-292-1200.
- The American Society of Civil Engineers has set up teams to study and report on implications of the WTC disaster. List of experts. Press contacts: Jane Howell, 202-326-5128 or Norida Torriente, 202-326-5129.
- National Fire Protection Association (develops building and fire codes): Julie Reynolds or Margie Coloian, 617-984-7275.
- American Institute of Architects: Mike Janes, 202-626-7467. List of experts.
- Univ. of Wisconsin (Engineering): Prof. Awad Hanna, 608-263-8903.
- Duke Univ. (Engineering): Prof. Henry Petroski, 919-660-5203.