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8 House Members View Draft Bill on Independent Science/Tech Probe of WTC 1, 2, 7 Collapses

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Post 9/11 Code Changes for High-Rise Buildings

No mandatory code changes for construction or remodeling of high-rise structures (115+ feet) seem to have been made since 9/11—except New York City with its nearly 700 units—despite their proliferation in urban areas. That the federal government should step in was a point strongly made to the 9/11 Commission by a member of the newly formed Skyscraper Safety Campaign organized by first-responder survivors. SSC’s first goal was:


To have a Federal Comprehensive Investigation, with subpoena power, into the collapse of the WTC, including design, construction, evacuation procedures and fire-fighting techniques.[9] 


Only local and state governments have enforcement power on building codes, either by revenue from permits or heavy fines for violations—if they can afford the teeth for compliance. Or stop extortion from building inspectors overlooking violations. Most of the nation’s 20,000 jurisdictions tout self-policing via a “model code” decreed by the International Code Council, an industry non-profit group said to be slow to accept changes (3-6 years) for builders and owners. Its policing powers on codes are largely an “honor” system. [10]

            Insurance payouts for 9/11 property claims—a collective $5.4 billion—might offer the only policing power. But they don’t. Instead, they offset such payouts by charging higher premiums which, in turn, are passed on to tenants—not owners. [11] 

Both FEMA and NIST reports on the WTC collapses provided a lengthy  list of recommended changes in construction and remodeling. But they were chiefly geared to fire prevention because researchers insisted fire was the only culprit. Neither agency gave credence to the other 13 possible causes which seem to have greater merit.

Outside of code changes involving fires such as installing a third stairwell, their suggestions, summed up by a real-estate editor, were: “emergency access and egress, improvements to structural systems and life safety systems, vertical transportation.” Specifics involve relocating parking lots, moving air intakes to higher floors, strengthening connections and joints in structural steel framing, toxic-material screening devices, widening stairwells and elevators, luminous markers on staircases, signal devices, bomb-proof building materials, laminated glass, and tighter security. [12]

The sticking point for applications seems to be that many developers, owners, architects, and builders have also studied the WTC disaster and remain unconvinced that fire caused the collapses or that high-rises will ever encounter such “extreme events” as a 9/11. So why should they invest any more money into additional fire measures when what they have is perceived as adequate? Even changes pertaining to fire prevention seem to confuse and/or infuriate developers, remodelers, and builders working in more than one community or state. So they often ignore them as being either unnecessary or prohibitively expensive. [13]

In New York City, however, compliance to code changes is better than most locales. Prior to 9/11, the Port Authority desperately wanted to demolish WTC 1 and 2 floor by floor because asbestos was driving off present and future tenants and corrosion could drop cladding to the street. But they obeyed the New York City’s Council which repeatedly denied them permits because the Twin Towers were tourist attractions and municipal bondholders would object to dividend losses. But expense certainly has created “bad guys” like the owners and contractors dismantling the 41-story, heavily damaged Deutsche Bank across from the WTC 2 site. It was federal safety regulators who arrived after a seven-alarm fire and revealed that the city had never issued a demolition permit for the job, nor bothered to check 44 deliberate and serious violations involving dangerous working conditions. Yet the owners and contractors have appealed the $500 million federal fine. [14]

            That the inspectors were from the Occupational and Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and probably will make that fine stick does suggest that federal “outsiders” are better enforcers of building codes than state and local housing inspectors. All too often inspectors are enmeshed with owners and the building industry.

As to the non-fire recommendations, high-rise tenants want parking around or under the buildings. Real estate officials have pointed out that additional fireproofing and both widening and illuminating stairwells might cost $13 million for a 42-story building and also cost them $600 million in lost rent because of decreased floor space. The vice president of the Building Owners and Managers Association, which oversees nine billion square feet of office space, warned that the prohibitive cost of just those three code changes could cut high-rise construction significantly. [15]

In the ICC’s September 2008 meeting, council members were shocked to discover that even the government’s property manager, the General Services Administration, had joined opponents of codes advocating wider stairs and adding a third staircase, illuminating them, and upgrading fireproofing. [16]   

            The rationale apparently is that both lives and billions of dollars will be saved by the common sense of waiting until an independent committee, drawn from the national and international scientific and technological professions,  conducts a thorough and unadulterated investigation about the 14 possible causes of the collapses to produce accurate answers. If fire was not a cause, why upgrade fire-prevention equipment and materials? If explosives were the cause, why invest in widening staircases or adding an escape elevator? If lax security was the cause, that’s where to spend.

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Dr. Ellis is the principal of Ellis & Associates, LLC, a writers group in Portland OR, a nominee for a Pulitzer Prize in history in 2004 (The Moving Appeal), and a former journalism professor at Louisiana's McNeese State University and Oregon State (more...)
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