As construction industry specialists continue to study the conditions surrounding Ground Zero in New York City, many experts are learning lessons from the disaster that may necessitate changes to future codes and standards relating to the design and construction of tall buildings.

According to Jerry Harke, vice president of communications for the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), Washington, D.C., the association is not aware of any developers’ plans to reduce building heights in the wake of the attacks. However, it has been sending out information on security and safety to its members since the September 11 attacks.

Ronald Klemencic, chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat and president of Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire Inc., a Seattle structural engineering firm, recently called leaders together from the planning, design, and construction disciplines in Chicago. Stressing that overall buildings have excellent safety records, the group nevertheless identified areas for improvement, including emergency egress requirements, integrated automated building controls, redundancy, security, and the development of a performance-based national building security code.

Cautioning against a panic reaction when planning new construction initiatives, Thomas K. Fridstein, a task force member and senior director in the Chicago office of Tishman Speyer Properties, maintains that tall buildings are safe. At this time, the task force is not looking to recommend radical changes.

“We will determine what society wants and expects and what people are willing to pay for,” says Robert E. Solomon, chief building fire protection engineer for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, Mass.

According to Engineering News-Record magazine, in an effort to learn from the WTC and Pentagon attacks, several major industry groups are taking the lead. For example, the Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) of the American Society of Civil Engineers is forming two investigative teams—one for each disaster location. By studying the failed structural steel, investigators hope to determine how to prepare better designs. Using $20,000 in initial funding, the SEI is partnering with the American Institute of Steel Construction, the American Concrete Institute, the National Fire Protection Association, and the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.

A number of national code officials will also examine details of the WTC tragedy, hoping to initiate code changes for improving emergency access and egress. What prompted this effort? According to eyewitness accounts, workers descending the WTC staircases were met by firefighters coming up the same stairs, hindering effective evacuation procedures. Therefore, the need for separate passageways may be mandated in future codes.

President of the Structural Engineers Association of California Melvyn Green plans to help the International Conference of Building Officials put together a task force of code officials, fire officials, and structural engineers to do a thorough study in cooperation with the American Concrete Institute, American Institute of Steel Construction, the National Institute for Standard and Technology, and the Building Seismic Safety Council.

Amidst the work of these industry task forces and expert recommendations, what will the future hold for buildings of tomorrow? Of course, architects expect security and evacuation systems to become a high priority in the overall design of nearly every type of building or facility. Lobbies may be enlarged to house enhanced security functions, and adjacent or underground parking may no longer be part of the building design. Additionally, builders may be looking at the greater use of shatter-resistant glass coverings, foam- rather than water-based sprinkler systems, and synthetic textiles to reinforce concrete columns. An engineer at North Carolina State University has even developed a new type of concrete that does not fracture and crumble when a building suffers an earthquake or bomb blast. Increasingly, construction specialists are recognizing that any “hardening” of a building to resist a human “intervention” also protects it from the destructive force of tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

In light of the recent terrorist attacks, it stands to reason that many people are asking the same question: If buildings are designed differently, what new security/deterrent ideas are plausible? Since 1996, only about 100 patents publicly registered with the U.S. Patent Office have involved inventions related to terrorism. In addition to blast-resistant construction materials, these patents are for communications technologies, identification systems, firearms, and other weapons. After the events of September 11, this may change.

Photo courtesy of Luke Mata.