New Building Codes Reflect Security and Disaster Concerns

Tue October 08, 2002 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund

Standards are the bedrock of building construction. An integral part of building codes in each state and municipality, they stipulate everything from required hardness and strength of materials to fire resistance.

Small wonder that the standards and building code community has been shaken and deeply energized by last year’s 9/11 terrorist attacks. Just as standards research moved ahead more sharply after 1,500 buildings burned down in Baltimore, MD, in 1904, and design codes improved substantially after a large earthquake in California in 1972, so too standards and codes are expected to include new provisions in the wake of 9/11.

Construction Equipment Guide asked leading experts throughout the standards and building code field to explain their new anti-terrorist projects and other vital work.

Withstanding Attacks

Founded in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, MD, continues to work with industry, scientists and government on numerous research projects related to earthquakes, wind, fire and other factors affecting buildings. It also performs a wide range of other research on everything from pollution control technology to earthquake hazard reduction. Now NIST also is engaged in helping prevent, or respond to, terrorism.

NIST currently is working on approximately 120 research and standards-development projects relating to the terrorist threat, helping millions of individuals in the law enforcement, military, science, emergency services, information technology, airport and building security and other fields.

The anti-terrorist projects include strengthening materials for buildings and bridges, developing encryption standards for protecting sensitive electronic information, increasing the security of electric power systems, detecting chemical and biological threats, and a wide range of other critical activity (See Coding on the Front Line.)

“A lot of work which had typically been done for other purposes is now being steered to homeland security,” said NIST Spokesperson Jan Kosko. “One of our computer models, for instance, called CONTAM, is used in research to track the flow of air, and possible contaminants, through buildings. It’s now being looked at as a way of tracking other organisms.”

After anthrax spores were released in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., in Oct. 2001, NIST engineers, using their own computer model, tracked ways in which air flow may have transported the spores.

As CEG has previously reported, NIST also is conducting a $16-million two-year federal investigation into the collapse of buildings during the World Trade Center disaster.

Besides investigating the building construction, materials, and other conditions affecting the collapse, the study is expected to recommend new design standards, especially on fire-endurance ratings, some of which still are based on tests during the 1920s.

“A large part of the study will look at standards which are in place to see if they should be changed,” said Kosko. “We may recommend changes in design so that buildings would withstand attack, or even other types of emergencies, and allow people more time to escape. Such changes could include, for instance, hardening stairwells to make them safer.”

The WTC investigation will include a computer model that re-creates aspects of the fires that occurred following the terrorist attacks. A new standard, for instance, is expected to be recommended for greatly improved fire-resistance of connectors between floors and vertical columns.

Standards Affected

NIST, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, doesn’t write or issue the actual building standards; it is not a regulatory agency. In the United States, in contrast to many other countries, most building-related standards are developed by the private sector. Here, too, homeland security is a focus of increased attention.

“Homeland security is definitely one of our new areas of activity,” said Stacy Leistner, director of communications and public relations for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a non-profit private-sector organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C., which has accredited approximately 280 organizations, each with expertise in their own field, to develop standards.

ANSI was founded in 1918. Its accredited organizations include such groups involved in construction as the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM), Philadelphia, PA; the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), New York, NY; and the American Concrete Institute (ACI). These organizations prepare standards documents that follow ANSI procedures for consensus and due process. Once approved by ANSI, they become American National Standards.

“When industry identifies the need for a new standard, whether it’s a new activity [such as homeland security or biometrics] or more traditional standards activities [such as those for the building and construction industries], we have the process for handling it,” said Leistner. “I have a feeling that standards will be developed as a result of NIST’s research [on the collapse of the WTC buildings],” said Barbara Schindler, director of corporate communications of ASTM, whose standards govern how materials are tested for hardness or other qualities. “I can’t really tell you if there will be revisions of existing standards, or whether new standards will be developed to address the situation, but I know there will be a lot of research as a result of the NIST project.”

“Buildings are constructed according to codes, and the codes reference standards,” explained Schindler. “Over 1,000 ASTM standards are referenced in building codes.”

Revised Building Codes?

Building construction codes, based on standards, become law once a community adopts them. Though most other countries have national building codes, in the United States, regulations governing the way privately owned buildings are constructed are viewed as a responsibility of the states and local government.

The 9/11 tragedy has affected this area, too. Future building codes may incorporate new standards for more terrorist-resistant structures.

“I doubt whether we will ever have an anti-terrorism code but I’m sure we’ll have provisions added to building codes, which will deal with this type of thing,” said Jim Hill, deputy director of NIST’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory in Gaithersburg. “I see building codes evolving to the point where they will include provisions dealing with protecting buildings against terrorist attacks.”

Hill pointed out that disasters have often spurred positive action. The 1904 fire in Baltimore destroyed 1,500 buildings because there were no standard couplings for fire hoses. This spurred the Bureau of Standards to work with other organizations and manufacturers to develop a standard coupling.

Likewise, large earthquakes in California in 1927, 1935, 1972 and 1994 each led to tighter requirements improving quake-resistant design.

James Bihr, retired chief executive officer of the International Conference of Building Officials, Whittier, CA – the organization that produced the Uniform Building Code, a model building code — pointed out that increasing the resistance of buildings to terrorist attack is somewhat like increasing their resistance to earthquakes.

“The major emphasis [in earthquake protection] is on tying the building together,” he told CEG, “making sure that, when the ground shakes, everything bends together and remains connected so that buildings can transfer and absorb the energy. If the building is designed to act as a unit, it should also resist attacks.”

Bihr does not believe, however, that anti-terrorist design should be put into code form.

“Codes are minimum standards, not maximum,” he said. “I don’t think it’s practical to put terror-resistant design into codes because terrorism can take so many forms. Who knows what cataclysmic event could take place? Architects and owners should look beyond the minimum standard of the code to see if there is any apparent weakness. For instance, does the building have the reserve or redundant strength to withstand forces over the design load?”

Fifty years ago, there were many local codes, but in the past few decades these have coalesced primarily into three model building codes. Through the efforts of model code organizations, a single set of national-model construction codes has now been developed by the International Code Council (ICC), a non-profit organization established in 1994 by the model code organizations, integrating their work. These organizations are the Building Officials and Code Administrators International Inc. (BOCA), the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) and the Southern Building Code Congress International Inc. (SBCCI).

ICC committees have developed international fire, energy conservation, mechanical, plumbing and other codes, all reviewed and approved by consensus committees from throughout the construction industry.