A time for reassessment

August 11, 2010

If they signaled nothing else, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks unleashed on the United States indicated a need for reassessment at many levels. On a macro level, government leaders must take a new and more realistic look at the pervasiveness of terrorism and what this might mean with regard to foreign relations — and for retaliation against perpetrators of terrorism.

The tragic incidents revealed serious lapses in airline security. And because thousands of people lost their lives in buildings, it is time for all segments of the nonresidential building industry — owners, architects, engineers and contractors — to re-evaluate building security from the perspective of the grim benchmarks established last month.

Owners must ask themselves how tall their buildings really need to be. Although the events of Sept. 11 hopefully will never recur, what if similar situations arise? Will every super-tall building that is a lightning rod for terrorism need to be evacuated, as the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur were last month?

As a symbol of American economic power, the World Trade Center was an obvious target for terrorists. The twin towers displayed remarkable resiliency when attacked by a truck bomb in February 1993. But the same forces that attempted to destroy them eight years earlier apparently ratcheted up their firepower last month. The new reality is that airliners may now be the weapon of choice for terrorists.

The Trade Center towers were designed to withstand events that could be reasonably expected. But in today's environment, reasonable is a relative concept.

Some building team members who have been involved with high-rise building projects believe that terrorist acts will have little negative impact on the continued development of this type of structure. But time will tell whether that view is shared by the public in general.

There is a practical limit to technological prowess. We should no longer expect a building structure to withstand the impact of an airliner loaded with jet fuel.

The real bottom line, of course, is the degree to which the United States must strike a balance between security against terrorism and the freedom of a democratic society. As we collectively sort out the answers, members of the building team must take a fresh look at the implications this has for activities under their control.

         
 

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