Deconstructing the New Urban Fortress:Terror-Proof Buildings

04/02/2008 |

The latest directives from the U.K.’s Home Office urge architects to design terror-proof buildings, complete with panic rooms, concrete, and steel blockades; however, the American perspective from the public and private sectors is typically one that integrates transparent security with design excellence, openness, and blast-resistant design.

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

The roles of architecture and blast-resistant design in protecting modern buildings and cities have increasingly become a topic of discussion in the post-9/11world. In 2008, high-level government officials in the United Kingdom have issued what might easily be construed as national design directives to provide protection against vehicle bomb attacks from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Such actions by any national government in the free world have far-reaching implications for architects, engineers, landscape architects, building owners, and developers who design, manage, and pay for construction projects.

On March 22, 2008, The Guardian reported that the British Government’s Home Office urged architects to design new buildings with panic rooms, truck bomb barriers, and glazing to blunt terrorist attacks. To assist in this effort, Home Office counterterrorism experts will be training designers to “reduce the carnage caused by suicide and vehicle bombs detonated in crowded places, such as shopping centers.”

A training video on this subject urges architects to design windows no larger than 3 square meters, and to avoid using masonry cladding on buildings higher than 2 stories. The goal is to minimize the effect of flying stone and glass shards that often result after a bomb explodes.

Furthermore, the video calls for concrete and steel blockades outside buildings to block truck bombs, and building setbacks, known as standoff, of 50 meters from the road to minimize the impact of a blast on the building envelope. Government officials claim these measures are needed due to higher risk that tactics seen in Iraq and Afghanistan would be tried in the UK. The goals of many terrorist acts and suicide bombers appear to be mass casualties in public places, with wide media coverage.

This led some British architects to call the effort “idiotic,” with results that would lead to ugly, inhuman urban environments. Another observed that without legislation and enforcement, most designers wouldn’t follow it, especially since it fails to put developers, who pay for projects, on a level playing field.

Security-minded consultants, architects, and engineers know intuitively that every foot or meter of standoff from the road mitigates the impact of a blast on the building envelope; however, security design is not a one-size-fits-all condition, and buildings need not look like medieval urban fortresses to protect people and assets. Many other techniques can effectively mitigate the impact of flying glass shards and building materials after a blast.

Transparent Security: Education, Not Legislation
Transparent security, invisible to the public eye, can take on many forms, especially when implemented by design professionals familiar with the basic requirements, and by enlightened owners who understand the added public safety, market value, and potential for reduced liability that security enhancements can provide to their properties. Education, not legislation, is the best way to take this on. The building industry should be encouraging creative, aesthetic ways to increase building security without resorting to military-issue street furniture and design elements that obviate the need for design expression in urban environments. It can be done.

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which owns, operates, and manages thousands of federal buildings and properties across the United States, has taken on a somewhat different approach to blast-resistant design by utilizing the fundamental principles, but emphasizing the balance of security, openness, and design excellence. Rather than building a legacy of federal bunkers with thick walls and no windows, the GSA has made a concerted effort to integrate high-performance materials, methods, public art, and landscaping at plaza setbacks to mitigate the impact of IEDs and other potential threats.

Just a week after the UK directives were issued, the U.S. State Department instructed U.S. personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad not to leave reinforced structures due to incoming insurgent rocket fire that killed two American government workers in the so-called Green Zone, arguably one of the most fortified pieces of real estate on the planet. As a result, the memo sent to diplomats and embassy staff requires employees to wear helmets, body armor, and other protective gear if they must venture outside, and strongly advises them to sleep in blast-resistant locations instead of less secure trailers.

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