Terrorist attacks had changed architecture even before 9/11

WASHINGTON — Did the destruction of the World Trade Center 10 years ago spark a sea change in architectural design with safety and security in mind?

No. That spark was lit years before.

"Each benchmark event gives change," says architect Barbara Nadel, who edited a book on how to design safer buildings. "Catastrophes do trigger changes ... the way we think, the way we act and how we respond as a society."

The most obvious security changes at public buildings stem from earlier events: the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, which killed 241 U.S. servicemen and raised the awareness to the dangers of truck bombs, and the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 and shattered the federal building's bank of glass windows.

Now bollards — those short vertical objects made of steel and concrete — line the sidewalks outside government buildings, which are surrounded with wider plazas and stronger fences to prevent a terrorist from attacking with a vehicle filled with explosives. There are other more discreet changes — more leafy trees, the placement of concrete benches and tables in courtyards, improved lighting.

Those changes, however, did nothing to stop the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center buildings, whose structures buckled under the heat and stress, killing thousands in the ensuing collapse.

The new 7 World Trade Center, built on the site of one of the destroyed buildings, has a concrete core and a steel superstructure. The architects, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, exceeded the requirements of the Port Authority and the New York City building codes.

The biggest change, however, wasn't so much to ensure that the building would stand in the event of a similar attack, but that people inside could get out. The airplane that hit the World Trade Center 2 building "destroyed the operation of the elevators and the use of two of the three stairways," according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology's World Trade Center investigation.

In the new 7 World Trade Center, the emergency stairways are better protected than they were before and the stairwells themselves are 20 percent wider, to allow more people to use them.

"Architecture changed less than anyone predicted, than expected," said G. Martin Moeller, senior vice president and curator at the National Building Museum in Washington. Now, he said, "many of the building codes ... are set up with the intent of protecting the occupants and not necessarily with the idea that the building should survive the attack."

Building codes have always changed after a tragedy.

A tragic fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, which killed 146, led to the creation of workplace safety regulations, workers' compensation and new safety codes.

In 1998, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania spurred the State Department to build safer embassies. In 1999, the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act required, among other things, that "all U.S. agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), co-locate offices within the newly constructed compounds," according to the Government Accountability Office. Since passage of the act, the State Department has moved 24,000 people, as of July, into more secure facilities; 35 more projects are either being built or are being designed.

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks brought more focus to the issue of security.

"In the last 10 years, the building industry, the security industry, the real estate industry, have all worked together to create solutions," said Nadel, editor-in-chief of "Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design," a resource guide on the topic. "A really comprehensive way to approach security integrates designs, technology and operations."

In 2009, the American Institute of Architects produced a report, "Design for Diplomacy: New Embassies for the 21st Century," regarding security for government buildings abroad. The report noted the need for updating embassy security procedures overseas and tracked what changes had been made.

One example is that the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which sets security standards when embassies are built, added a second review of security six to nine months after the buildings were opened.

"Governments are responsible for their (employees') safety and security," Nadel said.

Sometimes, however, it takes years to implement security improvements.

A 2008 WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. Embassy in Sudan, for example, complained that American officials were having trouble persuading the government in Khartoum to continue construction on a new embassy compound. The cable recounted the U.S. diplomats' sense that the Sudanese government was holding the new embassy hostage in an effort to resolve political issues. The new embassy was finally completed in 2010.

Another cable, dated April 18, 2008, from the embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay, bemoans delays in security upgrade that were first called for in 1999 but had been pushed back to a completion date in 2013.

As of August, the State Department had taken several steps to improve security at the embassy: rerouting traffic, building inspection points for vehicles and visitors, and installing bollards and planters to block a vehicle from approaching the building. A State Department spokeswoman, Christine T. Foushee, said in an email that a contract for additional work is expected to be awarded in the next month.


AIA — New Embassies for the 21st century"

Cable: Sudan minister considers new U.S. embassy construction a "political issue"

Cable: U.S. Embassy in Uruguay worries about security issues

Barbara Nadel

Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster: Final Report of the National Construction Safety Team on the Collapses of the World Trade Center Tower 7

National Institute of Standards and Technology report on the World Trade Center disaster

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