Deconstructing the New Urban Fortress: UK’s Mandate for Terror-Proof Buildings

April 2, 2008

The latest directives from the U.K.'s Home Office urge architects to design terror-proof buildings ...

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.

Today's Tactics vs. Tomorrow's Threats
Taken together, these two reports from the UK and Baghdad can lead observers to conclude that not even the most hardened buildings and compounds in the world, whether in a major cities or in one of the most violent war zones on earth, can prevent terrorists from launching attacks against their targets and attempting to kill people and damage assets.

What's more, the idea of a terror-proof building designed for blast resistance is based on today's tactics. Tomorrow's threats, likely to be the products of deviant minds, may exceed the imagination of a civilized world.

"Attempting to design a terror-proof building is the epitome of arrogance, a sense of hubris that deliberately ignores the boundaries of the human mind. We do this at our own peril by underestimating our enemies," says Raymond T. Mellon, Esq., Hon. AIA NYS, Partner at Zetlin and De Chiara, LLP, a New York City construction law firm.

"A century ago, the British developed what they claimed was an unsinkable ship: the Titanic. It sank. There is no such thing as a terror-proof building, especially when the Green Zone in Baghdad is under attack from people in vans with bazookas, rockets, and suicide bombs. Does terror proof mean that no attempt will ever be made against a facility? By what standards are we deciding that a building will be terror proof? Is it based on threats that we know from 2001, 2008, or the ones we haven't seen yet that may materialize in 5, 10, or 20 years, and beyond? The human mind can always come up with diabolical ways to kill people."

Mellon notes that the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, a 20th-century warship, was launched using one of the oldest modes of transport known to man: a small boat. The 1983 Beirut bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks used, for the first time, a vehicle bomb. Until that point, truck bombs and suicide bombings had never been considered as threats to public or private facilities.

"The idea of a terror-proof building is laden with danger," adds Mellon. "It provides us with a false sense of protection that is illusory, and sets a standard that is not achievable today or in the future. At best, architects and engineers can seek to design buildings that are terror resistant to mitigate injuries to people and property damage."

Architect and former U.S. Ambassador Richard N. Swett, FAIA, who served in Denmark from 1998 to 2001, and is vice president and managing principal of Leo A Daly in Washington, D.C., likewise rejects the call for architects to design so-called terror-proof buildings as the British have advocated.

"It is a fool's errand to believe that our world can be made safe through the construction of bunker-like buildings that only demonstrate our fear of and acquiescence to the control terrorists have over our lives. There is not enough money in the world to support such a foolish plan. If design is to have any impact [on] creating a safer world, it will be through public discussion of how design can be used to make all members of the community feel included. Rather than build ‘protective' walls of separation, we must construct dialogue that tears down the ideological and cultural walls that divide us," Swett observes.

Architects and engineers should be knowledgeable about how to design safe and secure public spaces that enhance the built environment rather than detract from the experience of enjoying cities. "Our public spaces should be forums where we can converse, otherwise we will have to ban public assembly altogether. This is the new role of the architect - to understand how to create a safe physical environment without breaking the budget and to use the process of design to lead the community in a discussion of inclusion where everyone has a place."

As tensions continue around the world, and the prospect of deadly threats and attacks remains constant, the building industry and public leaders must find a balance to ensure public safety while maintaining the quality of life in civilized societies.

Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, principal of Barbara Nadel Architect in New York City, is author and Editor-In-Chief of Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design (McGraw-Hill, 2004). She may be reached at [email protected].

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