Oklahoma City: Security Civics Lessons

April 5, 2007

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

America’s Heartland is an unlikely location for terrorism. On April 19, 1995, that myth was shattered, along with the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which was destroyed by a truck bomb, killing 168 people and injuring many more.

This benchmark event, and the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, dramatically changed the way Americans locate, plan, design, and construct public and civic buildings. As the first major terrorist act on American soil, Oklahoma City prompted a security sea change within the building industry and the federal government. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) coordinated development of security guidelines for hardening buildings against blast and other terrorist threats. In June 1995, GSA issued Vulnerability Assessment of Federal Facilities, also known as The Marshals Report. These findings resulted in a thorough evaluation of security at all federal buildings and a system for classifying risks at over 1,300 federal facilities owned or leased by the federal government. The guidelines in the report also contained security criteria implemented by the federal government and, later, by other groups seeking standards. Many public and private owners have referred to and refined these guidelines, especially since there is no single security design code or standard in the United States.

Lessons Learned from OKC: Security and Blast-Resistant Design
Technical research conducted by GSA and other federal agencies studied several architectural, engineering, and landscape design elements, including site planning and access, vehicular circulation, standoff distance (which is the setback of the building envelope from the street to mitigate truck bomb damage), hardening of building exteriors to increase blast resistance, glazing systems to reduce flying glass shards and fatalities, and structural engineering design to prevent progressive collapse. The federal courthouses and office buildings designed and completed after 1995 reflect the findings and recommendations of GSA’s technical research and security criteria.

Most importantly, GSA demonstrated that security planning and design excellence are compatible. The generation of post-1995 buildings is part of GSA’s Design Excellence Program, which began under the guidance of Edward A. Feiner, FAIA, former GSA Chief Architect and now director with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, in Washington D.C., and continues today. 

According to Les Shepherd, AIA, GSA’s Chief Architect, appointed in 2006, “Oklahoma City forced us to look at the way we build federal buildings with a different eye, balancing security and openness. Together with the design community, we have developed an integrated approach to security design, moving from what began as a one-dimensional, security-only approach to one that is far more multifaceted. Designers are now responding to the fact that security countermeasures must accommodate the daily life of a federal building and the dignity it represents.”

“Our Site Security Design Guide, which will be published [in] Spring 2007, is one way in which we are supporting this evolution - encouraging designers, security experts, and project teams to consider how perimeter security can blend seamlessly into sites, achieving design excellence and good urban design while increasing safety,” Shepherd adds.

Rising Anew
GSA continues to look ahead for new ways of integrating design and security while avoiding the fortress look at federal buildings. In March 2007, GSA announced the winners of its 2006 biennial Design Awards, providing a significant legacy of excellence that reflects GSA’s mission. One of the winning projects is the new Oklahoma City Federal Building, designed by Ross Barney Architects in association with The Benham Cos.

The new, 181,000-square-foot building is sited on a 2-block parcel south and east of the Murrah site, which is now a memorial park. Planned to provide safety and security for building occupants, it is welcoming and accessible, thus achieving the goal of transparent security. The structure is a cast-in-place concrete system designed to prevent progressive collapse. Exterior walls facing the street are reinforced concrete, detailed to resist blasts.

Like all new GSA buildings, the Oklahoma City Federal Building incorporates security and sustainability. Overall form and building orientation allow light and views for occupants, and are designed to save energy. Shading devices lessen the impact of summer sun while redirecting sunlight onto interior ceilings.

The jury’s comment stated: “This building successfully addresses the heavy burden of replacing the Murrah Federal Building. The new office is secure, but, importantly, also open and humane. It is an excellent response to its urban context with a landscape design that integrates building and site into a harmonious whole.”

Educating the Public
The Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), located in Oklahoma City, informs the public about terrorism prevention and responder preparedness. The website (www.mipt.org) has a vast knowledge base of terrorism related information, including groups, incidents, and analysis.

By all accounts, there are still many individuals and groups around the world who seek to do harm to Americans and our way of life. Twelve years after the Oklahoma City bombing, the building industry has benefited from the extensive research generated by the federal government and the many lessons learned on how to design safer buildings.

The biggest message, however, that should not be lost on anyone, is that terrorists can find targets anywhere, at any time, to make a point, inflict casualties and damage, and maximize media exposure for their handiwork. Assessing risks and addressing security, transparently or otherwise, are essential tasks for all building owners, managers, and design professionals in the post-9/11 world.


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