Assessing the NIST World Trade Center Investigation

Jan. 9, 2006

The 3-year building and fire-safety investigation into the factors contributing to the post-impact collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gaithersburg, MD, will challenge future building design, construction, and operation in many ways. The report includes several technical reports on various aspects of the 9/11 disaster and will fuel debate on building design and operation for years to come.

While documenting the sad results of the 9/11 attack on New York City’s skyline, the NIST report painstakingly illustrates the details of the buildings’ performance under such insurmountable circumstances. The report also includes 30 recommendations on building and fire codes and standards, as well as on construction and building operation practices.

The recommendations were divided into eight groups and three categories. The eight groups are structural integrity; enhanced fire resistance of structures; new methods for designing structures to resist fires; improved active fire protection; improved building evacuation; improved emergency response; improved procedures and practices, including encouraging code compliance; and education and training programs.

NIST expanded its research in areas of perceived high-priority need, such as prevention of progressive collapse, fire-resistance design and retrofit of structures, and fire-resistive coatings for structural steel. In the report, NIST called on the building and fire-safety communities to pave the way for timely, expedited considerations of its recommendations stemming from the investigation.

NIST also called upon state and local governments to adopt and enforce immediately its recommended changes to codes and standards. Alarming to many in the building and fire-safety community, NIST’s appeal would effectively circumvent the codes development process for the national model building codes.

NIST’s intention in drafting the recommendations was to have them particularly apply to buildings of 20 or more stories, as well as to iconic and other critical structures. Following hearings on the final report - hearings at which BOMA testified - however, NIST moved away from specifying a definite building height.

BOMA Intl. has, on many occasions, stated its support for the research that NIST accomplished in its investigation. The research, as well as some of the report’s recommendations, will eventually benefit building owners and managers. However, many of the recommendations, though well-intentioned, are beyond the ability of society to meet. For example, one NIST recommendation expresses the goal for the prevention of progressive collapse without explaining what factors must be considered to prevent progressive collapse. Another calls for redundancy of active fire protection systems (e.g. sprinklers, alarms, etc.) but does not contain data on why - and if - sprinklers and alarms fail.

BOMA’s comments on the NIST recommendations focused on two areas of the report: a) occupant egress and emergency response; and b) the analysis of active fire protection systems and building/fire codes and practices. Among the several critical points BOMA raised in its comments are:

  • Building safety is an issue that BOMA Intl. and its membership take very seriously. However, we should be careful in making recommendations developed after one event that could reverse over 70 years of advancement in the life-safety features of the national building codes.
  • Improvements in structures, fire protection systems, building components, and materials have made building occupants safer than ever before.
  • Through the private-sector consensus code development proc­ess, further improvements in life safety will be made. These improvements, like past improvements, will be incremental, carefully considered, fair to occupants and owners, and cost-effective.
  • Recommendations in the absence of cost/benefit studies do not fulfill NIST’s obligation to perform due diligence and they provide no context within which to judge proposed changes in public policy, building codes, etc. that respond to these recommendations.
  • Existing buildings are different than new buildings, and any recommendations for improved life-safety measures should accommodate those differences. There are also differences in types and sizes of buildings, emergency egress for various sizes of buildings, and other critical issues that must be considered as the NIST recommendations are debated in the public arena.

Currently, NIST has contracted with the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) to translate the NIST recommendations into model building codes. The goal is to have these “proposed codes” ready by March 2006, in time for consideration for inclusion into the Intl. Building Code. Another goal of the NIST/NIBS contract is to have NIBS “shepherd” the proposed code changes though the code process. Only time will tell how the code development community will react to these proposals.

For more information on these issues, contact BOMA Intl. at (202) 408-2662 or visit (

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