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Building for Terror

edited January 2005 in architecture
This article is a revision of one I wrote for Architeam's Datum newsletter, July 2004 issue.
It might be a goodlooking and well-wired office building but, before you rent space, is it “terror-proof". This newspeak buzzword describes a new field that is emerging, to protect assets from 'multihazard events'.

The Australian federal government recently took steps to 'terror-proof' parliament buildings with an $11M perimeter wall, designed by Aldo Giurgola to thwart speeding trucks. They are also about to shatter-proof all the glazing. How far will they go? Are they at a real risk?

An American survey in 2002 determined that government and military facilities barely rate when it comes to terror attacks. They are just too hard to get at. So parliament is probably quite safe from attack, as long as they keep publicising how secure they are. The real targets are economic and civilian, those buildings with high populations and easy public access. Basically anything that isn't a government or military compound.

Adding to the problem of any building being fair game for an attack is that of there being many ways to attack the unfortunate building. How are we supposed to design in protection for a building when the type and scale of attack are unknown? Enter the US Government’s FEMA program and its recent efforts to provide, “design guidance for mitigating multihazard events.” (Link at end of article)

The advice seems to have been regurgitated from U.S. military guides. The gist of the hundreds of pages is that the 'unscreened' public are viewed as potential terrorists, and that buildings will have to 'harden' to protect their assets.

2002 surveys by FEMA indicate that the most likely target for terrorism are business facilities, followed by ‘other’. Government, diplomatic and military facilities hardly rate. The most likely method is bombing, and the most casualties by far were ‘others’.
What sort of buildings do we need to protect? FEMA design guidelines are available for the terror-proofing of schools, light industrial areas, office blocks, basically anywhere people gather in numbers.

The guidelines require us to rethink most of the systems and components that make up a building. Beyond the planning and architectural advice, there are recommendations on tenant mix, water supply pipes, structural systems, stair widths, airconditioning and a lot more. The thought of a building being an address with a public presence, perhaps even a local landmark, is not encouraged. Anonymity and separation are required to minimise exposure. Are we in for a permanent season of bunker architecture? It depends on who is driving the change and the power they wield.

Hardening a building is an extra cost, so the building owner has to make the call about what the risk is, and how far they are prepared to go to lessen it. They will pay attention to the views of insurance companies and leasees, and no doubt a new generation of security spruikers. FEMA provides a lengthy multichoice questionnaire which can help owners pinpoint the level of risk acceptable to them.

In Australia, commercial building owners have to contirbute annually to a "terrorism insurance pool", which covers them no matter how much of a target they might be. This levy is 10% of what is being paid overseas for private terrorism insurance for buildings, but another imposed levy is not what many building owners wanted. Chris Connelly, director at Melbourne firm Sustainable Risk Management recently said the money would be better spent hardening buildings against bomb blasts.

What could the future look like? If the hundreds of pages of FEMA design advice are slowly absorbed into the construction industry, there will be some major impacts on the future design of our central business districts.

Structures that do get built in the CBD will be less permeable, fortresses with no interaction with or contribution to their surrounds. At the level of the streetscape, expect less parking near buildings, new buildings set well back from the street, fewer internal vehicle dropoffs, a less ambiguous demarcation between public and private realms, the cluttering of footpaths with anti-ram street furniture, and the removal of bins, newspaper stands, and hedges that bad guys could lurk behind. Shops and public arcades will be discouraged at the base of well-populated buildings. Street curving and traffic calming measures will reduce vehicle ramming speeds.

Around the back of your typical big building things could look quite different due to the elimination of basement parking, and internal loading docks. Mail rooms will be located on the perimeter, with walls designed to relieve pressure in an explosion.

In the guts of the building, grand public foyers will shrink, because the public will not be encouraged inside and because those foyers need vulnerable transfer beams above them. Public access will be via a single door entering into a structurally strengthened, blast-proof zone. Queues will be minimised (one of few positives...), and public stairwells would be glazed to dissuade any antisocial activities happening within them.

Facades will have reduced glazing (under 40%), with preferably none at ground level. Window sills will tilt outwards steeply to cast off any stray packages. Reentrant corners will be avoided. The current popularity of transparent, light facades will be replaced by thick, heavy, walls designed to repell.

With recommended distances from unscreened vehicles being 25 metres, some companies and government departments will not risk building or leasing in the city. The suburban office park will grow in popularity, and buildings there will be cloaked in foliage and landscaping so that the asset can be obscured from any prying eyes. FEMA does warn though that, “thorn-bearing and sharp-leaved plant species can create natural physical barriers to deter aggressors. Although this technique can be highly effective, designers should consider the liability they may incur from injuries resulting from legitimate users inadvertently coming into contact with them.”

It is hard with such an unquantifiable risk to know how things will move. It could be that we will respond to it in the same way that people living next to fault lines do, taking reasonable precautions but not getting too depressed about it. But the weight of the FEMA report ensures that we will be seeing some aspects being used in buildlings soon. The guidelines, which Canberra seems to have acted upon already, are one part common sense precautionary guidelines and one part guidelines for the dismantling of a built environment reflecting a society based on trust.

Like the United States' 'duck and cover' advice on how to prepare for a nuclear attack in the home, the FEMA advice may appear quite odd and misguided in the years to come.

The present terror hype needs to be viewed carefully, it is the product of a new industry expanding too quickly. Mechanical engineers recently released an airconditioning system that filters anthrax. It turned though out that this team had already developed the technology to filter microbes out of air intakes in sick buildings. This filter was rebadged as a 'filtration system for biological agents'. As a graduate working on the project said, "it can be a very efficient system [against] terrorist activity. The... market can be changed."

Surprise surprise, the safest place to be on the planet was not built for humans, it was built for data. The TITAN1 data repository in Washington State is the place to send that information you really don’t want to lose. 3 foot thick walls guard against truck bombs, nearby atomic explosions and incoming jets. The rent is hefty.

Chris Connelly -
Dept of Homeland Security (U.S) – American Institute of Architects subsite: “Building Security through Design.” They see a role for architects to advise clients on security needs.


  • peter_j
    edited January 1970
    Here is a lead to an article published recently in the Financial Times about the responses of architects to terrorism-design, and what they think of its impacts on public space. Norman Foster and Michael Sorkin are interviewed, among others.
    MICHAEL SORKIN: "The values of free access and free assembly, the means by which democracy defends itself, are in the hands of architects... They [architects] have failed to defend a public realm that’s under threat from the paranoid surveillance of a draconian regime as well as from terrorism. Architects have a duty to defend the accessibiity of public space.”
    RICHARD SENNETT: “When faced with this kind of terrorism a bunker mentality emerges. After 9/11 almost every building in the US became like a fortress. The Brits are more balanced, Americans have very little experience of dealing with danger on the ground, so they overreact.”
  • peter
    edited November -1
    <p>Here's a new type of education... architecture and urban-planning students in Bristol, UK will be taking part in a terrorism simulation as part of a seminar teaching them how to design terrorism-retardent (?) buildings. The semimar will apparently emphasise legal implications if they don't take terrorism into account when designing.. wonder what that means... I don't think my insurance covers that.</p>
    <p><a href=""></a> BBC 13.11.08</p>
  • miles
    edited November -1
    your point peter?
  • peter
    edited November -1
    <p>I have been interested in modern defensive architecture since I stumbled across Gehry's paranoid Hollywood Library in 1993. This building manages to repel rather than entice the public. It is very safe though.</p>
    <p><a href=""></a></p>
    <p>I don't want to wake up one day and be surprised to find that the BCA has a Part K: Building Protection that forces us to design buildings that have a negative impact on the spaces around them. The Building Code of Australia is being reviewed right now.  <a href=""></a> "The ABCB Office is monitoring initiatives to improve the protection of critical infrastructure and iconic structures against threats such as terrorism." The <a href="">definition of critical infrastructure</a> is broader than you would think, even including food outlets.</p>
    <p>The RIBA-sponsered exercise mentioned above, involving freaking architecture students out with worst case scenarios then threatening them with future legal action, is not healthy eductaion. But it could get worse - there is a discussion in the UK about whether 'security modules' should be added to an architect's education ( <a href="">here</a>, half way down the page). A <a href="">debate</a> at the London Architecture Festival in June revolved around the role of architects in counter-terrorism. Speaking against the motion, "this house believes that we should fortify our cities", architect John Adams said, “if you harden the main targets, the bombers just make icons out of the buses in Tavistock Square – you can’t harden the whole world.”</p>
    <p>On Friday the UK Home Office and the RIBA launched a competition open to UK architecure students. <a href="">Public Spaces, Safer Places</a>, (brief is <a href="">here</a>), asks students to design a one hectare square in London, containing pubs, retail, housing etc, with measures against "person-borne and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices" being the main focus. As Piers Gough said at the London debate, "Every special interest group in the country wants architects on their side to carry their paranoia! Don’t listen to them!”"</p>
  • miles
    edited November -1
    <p>ok. i think there was a conference about this stuff at rmit a couple of years ago....architecture and terror or something. it may have got cought up with virilio bunkers and castles crap but the papers are available i think.</p>
  • peter
    edited November -1
    <p>Yes there was a small conference which I managed to miss. Architecture & War I think it was called.</p>
    <p>Update. Piers Gough has attacked the competition (above) and asked students to boycott it. He has some backing from a couple of heads of school in the UK. <a href="">INDEPENDENT 24.11.08</a></p>
  • peter_j
    edited November -1
    Update: CS Monitor doesn't think it's all bad.
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