Codes and the Real World

It is strange and unfortunate how reality has a tendency to make its way into the best—and worst—of plans. In assembling this university-themed issue, one of our offerings addresses trends in dormitory design, including sprinklers, but also the notion of voice evacuation as an egress tool for people unfamiliar with a particular building or facility (see "Graduate Degree Dorms," p.

03/01/2003


It is strange and unfortunate how reality has a tendency to make its way into the best—and worst—of plans. In assembling this university -themed issue, one of our offerings addresses trends in dormitory design, including sprinklers, but also the notion of voice evacuation as an egress tool for people unfamiliar with a particular building or facility (see "Graduate Degree Dorms," p. 40).

Many readers will recall that a fire in an unsprinklered dorm on the campus of Seton Hall University a couple years back started serious discussions about mandatory sprinkling for these building types, as several people were killed in the incident. Unfortunately, in the time between the story's completion and its publication, two more real-world tragedies struck: the trampling deaths of 21 people at a Chicago nightclub, and in the same week, nearly 100 more fatalities in a fire in a Rhode Island nightclub. In both cases, voice evacuation may have made a major difference, but also in both instances, it was revealed that the most basic of life-safety measures, such as illuminated exits, multiple exits and proper permits for fire-related entertainment, were lacking and in clear code violation (see "In The News," p. 15).

I found myself in a Manhattan hotel watching news analysis of these tragedies, coincidentally, while preparing for a roundtable discussion on code and building design issues moving forward in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One of the disturbing notions in the news report was a remark by a local fire-science professor that a further tragedy in these incidents is that not much is ever really done after these catastrophes. For example, he noted sprinklers were retrofitted into Seton Hall's dorms after the fire, but they remain absent in most other dorms nationally. I was in New York, of course, because the Lower Manhattan Development Commission was about to announce the winning WTC redevelopment plan. The New York Dept. of Buildings was also in the midst of preparations to announce the findings and recommendations of its World Trade Center Building Code Task Force, making a discussion of these issues most timely and appropriate.

We were fortunate to have the NYDOB's deputy commissioner at our forum (which will be presented in an upcoming supplement), who spelled out some of the city's plan, including a call for all high-rise buildings to have sprinklers, albeit within 15 years. That story will also be presented in a coming news item, but in the meantime, an issue raised in that discussion is relevant to this column: cost. Any major changes to a code must be well thought out before rashly enacted, as implementation costs may be more damaging than common-sense operational changes. Indeed, both club tragedies might have been prevented by simply complying with regulations and common sense. Enforcement is a key, but more importantly, I believe we should focus our energy and creativity reforming not codes but building owners, to change their operational cultures to truly protect the people working and patronizing their buildings—no matter what the cost.





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