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Friday, October 07, 2011

Another dangerous media interpretation: Castles in the Air

Letter to the editors, September 2011

Dear Editors of the Scientific American

I am writing in response to the article “Castles in the Air” by Mark Lamster, featured in the September 2011 issue. I have struggled to find the word to describe how I feel, but I think the best would be to suggest that I am overwhelmingly disappointed.

Firstly, I am disappointed with the content and indeed with the approach Mr Lamster has taken in proposing to discuss the issues of tall building design that have apparently been addressed over the last decade as a result, or at least in part to the events on 11 September 2001. Secondly I am disheartened that this article, in my opinion, propagates almost completely the anecdotal approach the media seems to take time and time again with respect to issues of debate in engineering fields. Obviously, I don’t expect to open Scientific American and find myself faced with a selection of technical papers, however I would expect that an article designed to give readers of related or scientific fields some insight into another area, would at least be built upon the founds of the root problem to which solutions are being proudly presented.

Surely before explaining the “new” measures that have been adopted in tall building design in response to the collapse of three such buildings, one might consider, as a premise for the article, alluding to why the buildings did collapse in the first place? I find it odd that one might present answers to a problem when the problem has not actually been defined. Indeed, how is it possible to present “answers” in this circumstance?

As a professional in Fire Engineering and research, my immediate reaction was one of outrage, followed by disappointment, followed by despair. Three buildings collapsed that day due to uncontrolled fires and as a function of how the steel structures subsequently performed under such conditions. I feel that the omission of at least an acknowledgment of this fact seriously undermines any arguments or conclusions drawn in the article.

Unfortunately I feel that the inadequate definition of an accurate premise further hinders the article throughout and in fact, after reading for a while, I feel that for me, all meaning becomes lost. Certainly, I lose faith halfway through that I will find some definitive, purposeful and inspiring reports of meaningful developments within tall building design for life safety.

Mr Lamster opens with the Les Robertson remark: "I espoused… that the responsibility was to keep planes away from the buildings and not to design the buildings for that circumstance". On one hand, I fully understand this philosophy and agree that it would be impossible to design every building for an “imagined future worst case scenario”, but one has to ask at this point, if fire is not noted as a issue, and we are ignoring the attacks by hijacked planes, then what are the problems with the buildings that we will seek to address during the rest of the article?

As Fire Engineers, we do hope that fire will be kept out of buildings, but to assume that it will be so would be to miss the point entirely. Dynamic, performance-based solutions and cost effective fire engineered designs are sought to minimise the effects should an unlikely event such as a fire occur. Is it not realistic to hope rather, or at least suggest, that we will be able to design buildings where life safety will not be so severely impacted because of intuitive design and advancement of materials science in the future, as opposed to what seems to be assumed here, that buildings would need to be made “sturdier” in the traditional sense with more materials and more expense? Perhaps this is a question for engineers and persons whose sound bites appear in this article rather than the author.

"One safety-enhancing design feature that is only beginning to be
implemented is the use of sky-bridges between buildings"

Certainly, access between buildings at high levels provides more safety through increased egress options, but I struggle to agree on the appropriateness of highlighting this as one of the "new", main safety design features in response to WTC 1 & 2. A poor choice given the context.

I could go on, but I think at this point it would not be constructive to do so. In fairness, Lamster does not have much to work with. Perhaps the lack of formal examples presented here of lessons we have learned from 9/11 with respect to all aspects of tall building design, is so because, frankly they are few and far between. Certainly, with regards to fire safety, no direct changes can be cited since the problem of fire safety was never defined in the first instance. I would certainly hope that the inclusion of “radio repeaters in stair towers” [to improve fire fighter communication] does not define the evolution of fire and life safety measure development over the past decade.

The problem on that day was the subject of the accumulation of numerous independent events, however the final trigger for the catastrophic outcome was one of inadequate performance of the building structures under fire conditions. Subsequently egress was compromised due to the nature of the attacks and how these impacted on the specific design of WTC 1 and 2.

I felt disappointed mostly because I was excited to read a summary of meaningful progression in design ideas and technical thinking about a difficult and sometimes misunderstood issue, but instead was presented with an anecdotal article whose main purpose seemed to be to continue the overarching theme of the September 2011 issue that [from cover] “We have seen a brighter future, and it is urban”, and very little else.

A purposeful consideration of steps needed in order to incite meaningful changes to the way we design for fire and life safety can be read here:

Article entitled “Challenging Attitudes on Codes and Safety”.

The author, Prof. Jose Torero, is Co-chair of the CTBUH Fire and Life Safety Working Group. Mr Lamster does include comments from several CTBUH members in the article, so perhaps this may be of interest?

Thank you for your time

Kind Regards

Ryan Hilditch

PhD Researcher
BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering
The University of Edinburgh


Luke Bisby said...

It will not surprise you that I agree with essentially everything you have said. Thanks for making your views known.

Guillermo Rein said...

Nice one.
This is the third letter to the Editor of SciAm.

- Letter to the Editor of Scientific American:

- An inexcusable omission:

Hope we get a reply from her as some point.