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

May 7, 2008

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.

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.


Some of the provisions of New York City’s Local Law 26 pertaining to high-rise construction include:

  • Enhance robustness and resistance of buildings to progressive collapse.
  • Prohibit the use of open web bar trusses in new commercial high-rise construction.
  • Encourage the use of impact-resistant materials in stair and elevator-shaft enclosures.
  • Widen stairwells or add more stairwells in high-rise buildings to facilitate rapid evacuation to the street level.
  • Require air intakes in new construction to be located at least 20 feet above grade and away from street loading bays to reduce the potential of introducing biohazardous substances into air-handling systems.
  • Adding photoluminescent strips to stairwells to facilitate egress during a power outage.

Competitive real estate markets and different building types are subject to different financial considerations. The bottom line, however, is that owners of smaller buildings have the same concerns as those of larger buildings: protecting people and assets during and after emergencies, and ensuring tenants can exit to safety in the shortest possible times and routes.

As an architect with years of varied experience in private practice, facility management, and real estate before accepting the buildings commissioner post, Lancaster brought a professional perspective to the needs of different building-industry constituencies. This was apparent when she convened and led the process for advancing high-rise safety and security provisions in a city that was emotionally and physically scarred by the events at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

When Lancaster assumed office as buildings commissioner in 2002 (after 10 others reportedly turned down the job), the department was scandal-ridden, in disarray, and unresponsive. In addition to her efforts on Local Law 26, Lancaster effectively addressed and streamlined many of the issues facing the building department, and took on some of the more complex problems, from self-certification and zoning issues in residential areas experiencing a glut of old home teardowns being replaced with oversized McMansions, to monitoring the activities of building inspectors.

When a series of fatal construction-related accidents occurred within a short time, however, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had previously hailed Lancaster’s efforts, abruptly withdrew his public support for her. In New York City, 13 people have died as of May 2008 in construction accidents, compared to 12 for all of 2007. In late April 2008, Lancaster resigned as buildings commissioner.

Shortly thereafter, the mayor and members of the New York City Council indicated they would try to remove the credential provision that the New York City buildings commissioner be a licensed architect or professional engineer. This is an ill-advised move.

In a city with nearly 1 million buildings, and about as many vocal and financially motivated constituencies, the job is widely regarded as a difficult and thankless task. The buildings commissioner requires a balance of professional credibility, political smarts, and media savvy. Removing the architectural or engineering license credential requirement dilutes the importance of the skills and training required, and will not benefit the public or necessarily result in greater construction safety – or more ethical building inspectors.

Registered architects (RAs) and professional engineers (PEs), whose professional responsibilities, by law, are first and foremost to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, are best suited to lead public agencies that oversee building design and construction.

Architect of the Capitol Still Vacant
Since 2007, a similar situation has occurred in Washington, D.C., regarding the appointment of the architect of the Capitol. According to the official website, “The architect of the Capitol is responsible to the United States Congress for the maintenance, operation, development, and preservation of the United States Capitol Complex, which includes the Capitol, the congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress buildings, the Supreme Court building, the U.S. Botanic Garden, the Capitol Power Plant, and other facilities.”

This is a 10-year appointment by the president of the United States. After architect Alan Hantman, FAIA, left the position in 2007, President Bush reportedly nominated candidates who were not architects to fill the position that clearly calls for the skills and training of an architect. As of May 2008, the position remains vacant.

Whether the issues concern security best practices, building codes, or professional leadership within the public realm, licensed and trained design professionals possess a significant understanding of the evolving and often emerging complexities found in the built environment.

For architects and engineers, professional responsibilities in the public and private sectors are predicated on protecting public health, safety, and welfare, by law, and are bound by codes of professional ethics. Few construction managers, real estate developers, public officials, or unlicensed political appointees can make those claims.

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