Lessons for the Building Industry from Terrorist Assaults

Oct. 1, 2008
Preventing global acts of terrorism against American buildings and iconic symbols of Western-style democracy overseas are among the major priorities of security professionals, government officials, and building owners

Global events in Yemen and Pakistan, and the range of threats that terrorists are capable of executing against civilian and government buildings, should give pause to every design professional and facility manager working on civic projects anywhere in the world, including in the United States.

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

Preventing global acts of terrorism against American buildings and iconic symbols of Western-style democracy overseas are among the major priorities of security professionals, government officials, and building owners. But, in an increasingly violent world, preventing such events, and protecting building occupants, should also be of paramount concern to the architects, engineers, landscape architects, and consultants involved with design and construction of iconic and Western facilities in the United States and abroad.

As the U.S. 2008 Presidential elections approach, building owners and law enforcement in major cities will almost certainly be on alert for circumstances that might foreshadow terrorist acts. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and individuals have previously struck before national elections: on Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States; March 11, 2004, in Madrid; and Dec. 27, 2007, with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. Additionally, death threats against U.S. political candidates and national public figures have warranted around-the-clock protection for candidates and public officials, and their families.

Nevertheless, car and truck bombs remain among the most serious potential threats for major cities because they can cause catastrophic damage. The most obvious mitigation factor is to set buildings back as far as possible from the street, and the source of potential car bombs, thus creating standoff distance. Maximizing the distance from the source of the bomb to the face of the building will mitigate the impact. In most cities, and for existing buildings, setbacks can be achieved by closing streets to general vehicular traffic; hardening exteriors; adding barriers, technology, and personnel; or a combination of various measures.

Urban design and architectural critics often lament the effect of building setbacks on the vitality of street life, urban sidewalks, and the prevalence of plazas surrounding new high-rise buildings; however, what many critics - especially those who are not practitioners - often do not understand is that building owners and their insurers, and design and legal teams, can no longer afford to ignore the reality of terrorism, the costs of loss of life and business, and the associated liability issues that will ensue after an attack. The use of transparent security, invisible to the public eye, can be applied along with more visible measures as needed.

Terrorist acts have been thwarted through effective intelligence. Fortified, secure buildings and infrastructure have been known to deter and prevent attacks. These activities are rarely made public, but law enforcement and government officials remain acutely aware of the need to protect people and assets in cities and towns around the world.

Lessons Learned
Every catastrophic event involving loss of life and destruction of buildings and infrastructure in modern history has provided a window into what went wrong, lessons learned, and how to adapt and apply newly gathered information into future projects. Whether the cause is terrorism, natural disasters, fires, or a horrific accident, forensic analysis often provides useful information for the building industry that can lead to changes in building codes and industry standards, and development of high-performance materials.

Sometimes, the net result of forensic findings confirms the building systems and the design worked as they were intended, the building and site were properly designed to meet the nature of the threat, and the loss of life was inevitable, but minimized under the circumstances. More often than not, however, this is not the case - especially when a terrorist attack or natural disaster impacts an older building not designed to withstand an extreme threat of any kind.

A case in point is the World Trade Center, designed in the late 1960s - and not designed or built to accommodate an airplane loaded with fuel slamming into it, and the mass egress of thousands of people within an hour while facing imminent building collapse.

September 2008 provided two more case studies, both involving buildings designed by Americans, and built overseas. Both incidents involved violent global terrorism, very likely at the hands of Al Qaeda, in the form of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombs, and suicide attackers. Both events resulted in casualties, but a closer analysis yields different conclusions.

Embassy Bombing in Yemen
According to the New York Times, on Sept. 17, 2008, militants disguised as soldiers detonated two car bombs outside the U.S. Embassy in Sana, Yemen, killing 10 people and 6 of the attackers. Of the 10 who died, six were Yemeni guards outside the embassy and four were civilians waiting to be allowed in. No Americans were killed, which is a significant fact because the attackers were unable to penetrate the secure perimeter of the facility, which typically functions as the first line of defense for any building.

As the attackers fired weapons and grenades at the guards, suicide bombers drove through the checkpoint and detonated their cars on the concrete barriers near the front gate. Some of the attackers were found to be wearing suicide vests, suggesting that a two-phase attack was planned. Once the secure perimeter was breached, the next step would have been to attack the buildings housing Americans inside the compound.

U.S. embassies, by law, are designed and built by American firms, with the U.S. government as their client. In this instance, the site, building design, and systems all worked as intended. The attackers were unable to breach the perimeter, and American lives and assets were protected from the attackers. Many of these security and design features were refined over the years based on lessons learned from previous incidents around the world against American facilities.

For commercial or civic sites in any location presumed to be at risk, this incident highlights the effective use of layered security, starting at the secure perimeter and working inside the site and buildings.

Hotel Bombing in Pakistan
Patrons and guests at the five-star Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, were not as fortunate as Americans inside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen on the day of that incident. On Sept. 20, 2008, a powerful truck bomb exploded at the entry to the Marriott Hotel, killing at least 53 people and injuring at least 266. The death toll reportedly included three Americans and other foreign officials.

The hotel was a popular destination for foreign diplomats, Western journalists, Americans, and well-connected Pakistanis. Local Pakistanis viewed the Marriott as an icon, a landmark, and a symbolic place in the country's capital. They lamented its destruction, but many must have realized that its very popularity with Westerners made it a prime terrorist target.

Based on published reports, surveillance videos, and images, a truck carrying 1 ton of explosives exploded at the hotel entrance, leaving a massive crater that was 40-feet wide and 25-feet deep at the security barrier to the hotel. ABC News reported that the truck sat burning and disabled at the hotel gate for at least 3.5 minutes as nervous guards tried to douse the flames before they, the truck, and much of the hotel frontcourt vanished in a fireball, according to dramatic surveillance footage.

The building appears to be a standard design typical for a hotel chain, which could easily be replicated and adapted around the world. Reviewing available photographs and news reports provides some information, but not the date of design and construction. It appears that the exit stairs are located at opposite ends of a double-loaded corridor. An additional stair may be located in the middle section. Applicable building codes (if any), building materials, and local construction practices may also play a role in how this building performed under these extreme conditions.

It appears that the 6-story residential part of the building is set back from the road and remains standing. News reports indicate that most of the 300 rooms were destroyed, and the windows are completely gone, raising the possibility of flying glass shards causing some casualties, as occurred at the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building.

After the explosion, the entire Marriott building was quickly engulfed in flames and continued to burn for hours after the attack. Roofs reportedly collapsed. The powerful force of the bomb, even with what appears to be a reasonable setback, still caused significant damage and fatalities, especially in the lobby, restaurant, and ground floor areas closest to the explosion, where the majority of foreigners and dignitaries would meet.

Viewing dramatic images of the aftermath of this bombing, the fire and the condition of the building provides an idea of the scope of damage to the structure, façade, and immediate area

While this terrorist act occurred in a very dangerous part of the world, similar tactics could readily be employed anywhere, at any time. In this instance, and by no means is this hotel or the hotel chain unique, the building was likely designed for typical hospitality occupancy, and not designed or built to withstand terrorist attacks, 1-ton truck bombs, and huge fireballs. It's hard to say how effective the egress and emergency systems were, but it's a safe bet that many guests did not get out in time and could not be rescued. As a result, in this case, the site planning, building design, and systems did not adequately serve the public welfare or building occupants due to the large number of casualties; however, there are many variable factors at play in this location, including activities of the guards before the explosion.

Owners, facility managers, and design teams for hospitality facilities in areas that are, or may someday be, at risk or house public figures (which could be almost any upscale hotel) must consider scenarios such as these, and ensure that appropriate mitigation, life safety, and security measures are put in place for new and existing facilities. Among the top priorities should be the ability for occupants to evacuate buildings rapidly and exit to a safe area at grade in case of a building collapse.

This philosophic approach to egress to the outside vs. providing an interior or basement area of refuge during a fire may not be widely accepted by those who don't believe that terrorist threats might someday impact their projects; however, global events, terrorist tactics, and the range of threats that terrorists are capable of executing against civilian and government buildings should give pause to every design professional and facility manager working on civic projects anywhere in the world, including in the United States.

For American owners providing overseas facilities where freedom-loving Westerners (and like-minded global citizens) congregate, live, and work, the need to provide safe and secure facilities, along with buildings reflecting design excellence, has never been more critical.

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