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Terror threats impact building designs | (UPI) -- Architects and building planners in the United States are faced with designing buildings that will sustain the insult of a terrorist attack as the nation continues under a heightened threat level, and possibility of chemical or biological assault or bomb blast becomes more real, particularly in highly populated urban areas.

"Office buildings are taking precautions particularly if they have tenant groups that represent government or international groups that at terrorist might want to strike to make a statement," said New York architect Barbara Nadal.

Nadal is author of the book, "Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design" set to be published in fall 2003.

The threat of a terrorist attack has some Americans worried about how vulnerable their homes and workplaces are to a chemical or biological attack. Commercial property owners and government officials are equally concerned about whether buildings located in urban areas could sustain an explosion or biochemical assault. As a result, architects and building planners are taking those concerns into consideration as they design or retrofit buildings and houses.

Nadal, former vice president of the American Institute of Architects told United Press International that landlords are being more cautious to secure exits, entrances and loading docks, an advantage when it comes to marketing their properties.

In a survey conducted in September, more than 55 percent of the AIA's 400 members say their clients have made building security a higher priority since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In addition, 46 percent say building owners have ordered implementation of security features in a current building or design over the last year.

"First they have to assess what the threats are for that facility. The threats may not be the same for every building owner," Nadal said. "Is it a car bomb? A truck bomb? Do we think biohazards are the greatest threat we face? Computer hacking?"

Both the layout of the building and the materials used in its construction could be the greatest protection its occupants have against a terrorist act.

Tragedies such as the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centers in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington taught building designers important lessons about how to lessen the impact of an attack, Nadel said.

Structural engineers are using a concept called "progressive collapse design" so that if a blast occurs, the beams and girders are connected so that the collapse would occur initially where the explosion happened, and the rest of the design would stay up for a specific amount of time allowing occupants to escape.

Building designers planning a structure for security may use a special type of glass in the windows that crumble rather than collapse into sharp, deadly shards, as was the case in Oklahoma City where the glass blew inward, Nadel said.

"Those shards of glass caused a lot of injury to the people inside," Nadal said. Many government buildings, she said, are installing so-called blast curtains, Kevlar-laced material that is designed to work in tandem with the special glass to capture shattering window fragments.

The physical layout of new commercial buildings is also changing. Facilities that pose a high security risk such as federal courthouses and government buildings are being constructed to a standard 50 to 100 feet away from the street, thus decreasing the damage of a bomb attack.

"In urban areas they don't always have that luxury, so many they have the bollards or the (concrete) planters," Nadal said. "Or they look at the lobby."

Lobbies inside newer buildings are no longer providing the main source of airflow for the upper floors. Air intake vents are being placed 50 to 60 feet above ground in the event someone releases a toxic substance in or near the lobby area, lessening the likelihood that the contaminant would enter the ventilation system.

"In new construction, it's required in order to attract tenants in this climate of heightened concern," Nadal said. "This security design such as a separate ventilation system will be something we will most definitely include like we include handicap access. It's an integral part of the design."

Donna Reichle, spokeswoman for the National Association of Home Builders, said her organization has seen an increase in requests for so-called panic rooms in primarily the high-dollar homes. Panic rooms are a more sophisticated version of bomb shelter that was popular during World War II and in the 1950s. They are separate secure areas within a house that sometimes has its own ventilation system and telephone lines, apart from the rest of the home.

The Department of Homeland Security said that studies have shown that taking steps to temporarily seal off a room using common materials such as plastic sheeting and duct tape enhances the safety of a room against the impact of a chemical plume.

"The temporary shelter created by a safe room definitely provides more protection than basic sheltering, i.e. going indoors, closing windows and doors and shutting off HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) systems," the DHS Web site says.

The NAHB says most new homes are using technology more than structural-types of innovations for protection. Security systems, multiple telephone lines, and wiring for high-speed Internet have been popular, she said.

The organization said it has no hard data on exactly what builders are being asked to do since the Department of Homeland Security raised the terror threat alert, but plan to poll its members on the issue during its next monthly survey.

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© 2003, UPI