Security, High-Rise Buildings, and Ethics: Cracking the Building Code

05/07/2008 |

Without a single security building code in the United States, building owners, design professionals, and public officials rely on best practices and industry standards. Only New York City amended the City Building Code after 9/11 to reflect building performance. In April 2008, the buildings commissioner who led that effort resigned, and Mayor Bloomberg wants to remove the provision that her successor must be a licensed architect or professional engineer.

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

Many building owners, design professionals, government officials, and even security consultants are often surprised to learn there is no single definitive building security code in the United States or elsewhere that applies across the board to all building types. The reasons for this are straightforward, yet not always apparent to those seeking a quick and easy answer.

In short, every building, site, owner, local, regional, and even national context is different. So are the threats and vulnerabilities that affect building systems, design elements, construction methods, and occupancies. Once these variables are identified, owners, design teams, and security consultants can determine where to implement strategies and allocate resources that will protect people and assets. Since most public and private owners maintain capital and operating budgets, available security resources may be limited or fixed on an annual basis. Thus, it is essential that security recommendations and strategies reflect the needs and priorities of owners, occupants, and the public.

Concrete barriers and closed-circuit cameras have become the most common visible security elements in recent years. But these items alone do not solve the bigger issues of protecting people and assets over the long term for most facilities unless they are part of a wider security plan. Such a security master plan should encompass design strategies, smart use of technology, and a sound operational approach.

Security in the built environment can mean different things to different stakeholders, depending on their roles. From real estate developer, building owner, facility manager, landlord, tenant, and design and planning professional, to law enforcement chief, public agency manager, national defense intelligence officer, military engineer, or elected official, the priorities of one stakeholder sometimes fall outside the realm or range of expertise of another. For these reasons, it is essential that security planning remains a multidisciplinary effort, and all stakeholders agree to communicate concerns in a collaborative manner that maximizes effective solutions.

Building Codes
In the United States, there are about 13,000 building codes. These vary in each of the 50 states, and even among cities within the same state. Most building codes are adopted and enforced by cities, counties, and municipalities. The foremost concern is protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public – especially with regard to fire, building collapse, and location of egress systems. These issues are important whether circumstances are due to acts of terrorism, natural disasters, or accidents.

Because there is no single security building code that covers design, technology, and facility operations, architects, engineers, and owners rely on an array of standards, model codes, agency guidelines, recommendations, and industry best practices. Certain facilities and sites may be more susceptible to terrorist threats than others at certain times, while neighborhoods or the operators of various building types may be more concerned with public safety, street crime, natural disasters, or workplace violence.

For new construction, security planning ideally occurs during the earliest design stages, when concepts, budgets, operations, approvals, and multidisciplinary coordination are often easiest to reconcile. Security elements in building systems may become more costly to include during construction documents or construction phases.

Security by Design
Shortly after Sep. 11, 2001, under the guidance of former New York City Commissioner of Buildings Patricia Lancaster, FAIA, the City of New York convened a group of 400 industry experts to review provisions of the city’s building code, especially as they pertained to high-rise construction. The consensus-driven code review panel encompassed real estate property owners, government, and Buildings Department officials, architects, engineers, industry groups, and code experts.

In May 2004, in an interview with Engineering News-Record (“New York’s Building Code Reflects High-Rise Concerns,” May 31, 2004), Lancaster told me, “Building code officials have expanded the thinking for new and difficult situations, especially for those we are not equipped to research. If proposed code recommendations prove to be too expensive, groups won’t advocate for them and their chances for adoption decrease. Typically, 80 percent of the revisions are accepted, 15 percent are discussed in a mediation procedure or arbitration, and 5 percent prove contentious enough to omit or arbitrate. The proposed building code addresses operational concerns for owners and institutions.”

A series of modifications resulted in an amendment known as Local Law 26, adopted as part of the New York City Building Code in 2005. Local Law 26 only applies to structures within the city of New York, not in other cities or counties in the state of New York. As a result, New York City is the only jurisdiction in the United States to modify its building code as a direct result of building performance after the events of 9/11.

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