A condominium developer in California brags about a 30-in.-thick concrete core with double-helix-style stairwells that "enhance" safety. At about the same time, structural engineers testify at an International Code Council hearing that a proposed commercial building code to harden stairwells should be thrown out because, among other reasons, it is not based on any demonstrated "significant" risk to a building. Simply put, where's the projectile? The proposal is vetoed.
At the same hearings, a proposal to add disproportionate-collapse resistance to commercial building codes is rejected. Engineers, vehemently opposed to the change, rejoice. But then they promise to come back with a substitute proposal for the next code cycle.
Why? Has there been a disproportionate collapse in the U.S.? The only one that engineers even debate as an example—and the argument is heated—is Oklahoma's Murrah federal building. Should all commercial buildings be designed to resist disproportionate collapse because a federal building was bombed? What's the risk to a hotel in Omaha? Does anyone know?
In response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City changed its code even though the attacks reflected nothing about inadequacy or adequacy of the building code. Every architect, engineer and building official should know that an act of war is not a hazard considered by commercial codes. The chance of any building being attacked is slim and it is impossible to predict the force of the weapon. Will it be a truck bomb? Will it be an airplane used as a missile? How about a dirty bomb?
The federal government spent $16 million to study the WTC, with the promise that the effort would result in "safer" buildings and to improve building codes. Not a penny of that money was spent on determining whether current building designs and codes are adequate. No one has done the homework.
Hurray for ICC, for throwing out ill-conceived proposals. But what the public deserves is honest, politics-free and opportunism-free work to determine what is really needed, if anything, to protect them. Instead, people have been alarmed, patronized and given false promises.
It's always possible to make buildings safer. The unanswered question is, "How much safety is enough safety?"