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FDA Should Listen To GSA
When It Comes To Evaluating Risk

We hope that someone at the FDA reads The New York Times, as a recent story entitled, Agency Fights Building Code Born of 9/11 — though about building codes for skyscrapers in a post 9/11 world — might as well have been about food safety policies promulgated by the FDA.

The gist of the story is that after 9/11 a special report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology gave recommendations on how to make non-residential skyscrapers (buildings over about 40 stories tall) more survivable and more easily evacuated. Something called the Code Council adopts so-called Model Codes that jurisdictions all over the country adopt as their own standards or, at very least, consider when adopting their own standards.

In any case, the Code Council used the final National Institute of Standards and Technology report to develop new standards that it incorporated in the 2009 version of the Model Code.

The lessons of 9/11 led to tough new requirements:

“Under the new rules, any nonresidential skyscraper over 420 feet tall, or about 40 stories, must have a third stairwell and fireproofing capable of staying in place even if hit with 1,000 pounds per square foot of force…”

The standard implicit in these requirements, that tall office buildings should withstand enormous explosions, such as those that may come from jet airplanes colliding with the building, and that the whole skyscraper should be able to be safely evacuated in a short period, are novel:

“Historically, tall buildings have not been designed to anticipate a complete evacuation, because even during an office fire generally only the several floors immediately near it are cleared. Fireproofing was also not traditionally designed with enough adhesive strength to ensure that it would stick to steel in the event of an explosion or another unexpected stress.

But dislodged fireproofing was blamed in part by federal investigators for the collapse of the twin towers. And the flow of firefighters climbing the stairs as office workers were leaving created traffic jams, the investigators found.”

The emotion tied to 9/11 and the collapse of the twin towers might have made the new building code a cinch, even over the objections of various developers and building groups. The Times article, however, was prompted because the General Services Administration — the federal agency that leases, acquires and manages property for the Federal government — is itself objecting to the adoption of this Model Code:

“It does not take a NIST report or a rocket scientist to figure out that requiring additional exit stairs will improve overall occupant evacuation times,” David Frable, a General Services Administration fire safety engineer, wrote in a petition asking the International Code Council to rescind the changes, which go to a vote next week. “The bigger question that needs to be answered is at what economic cost to society?”

The NIST report did not unveil innovative technologies that for pennies would save millions of lives. It recommended changes that were well known alternatives even before 9/11 but had been rejected because, generally speaking, there was no bang for the buck:

“…Mr. Frable of the General Services Administration and other real estate officials who have joined him in challenging the new standards… (claim they are) trying to counteract an emotional reaction to the 2001 attacks that has led to unrealistic and unnecessary new building standards.

They argue that office buildings are extremely safe, citing statistics from the National Fire Protection Association that show an average of one civilian a year died in office building fires nationwide from 2000 to 2004, excluding the Sept. 11 attacks.

“What we have had here are knee-jerk reactions without any indication that they are going to do any good,” said Ron Burton, a vice president of the Building Owners and Managers Association, whose members control nine billion square feet of office space in North America.”

And these new standards might do real economic harm:

“The costs associated with these new requirements are so significant that if major cities around the United States enact them, it could slow skyscraper construction nationwide, real estate executives predicted.

“We put up buildings to make a profit,” Mr. Burton said. “If the numbers don’t work, it won’t happen.”

Things such as an additional staircase can be exceedingly expensive. If an additional staircase requires a 20’ x 20’ footprint and the building is 100 stories tall, that one requirement means that in addition to construction and maintenance costs, the developer loses out on rental income from 400 square feet per floor or 40,000 square feet per 100 story building. In a big urban center where Class A office space can rent at $100 a foot or more, this loss of rentable square footage can cost $4 million a year. In addition, if the building sells at a 10 times the rent roll, that staircase reduces the value of the property by $40 million.

Which doesn’t mean the tougher standard shouldn’t be used. If, for example, tenants won’t rent in the building unless it has these safety enhancements and are willing to pay a premium to rent space in a skyscraper as opposed to a cheaper low-rise building, then these additional standards make perfect sense. Equally, if insurance companies won’t issue policies because the buildings are so fragile, that is another good reason to build the buildings stronger.

Yet it is not clear that as a required building code they make sense. In that fireproofing standard, for example, where did “1,000 pounds per square foot of force” come from?

One supposes they studied the 9/11 crash and determined that this new standard would have either saved the buildings or allowed enough time for total evacuation.

Yet why should that one incident determine the standard? Next time the terrorist might have four planes and these planes might be the giant new Airbus 380s — so that standard would not be adequate.

The obvious questions: How many lives will be saved by these new standards over how long a period? How much will it cost? Are there more efficient ways to spend the same money? None of these questions are answered.

Aside from 9/11, virtually nobody dies in skyscrapers in the US due to fires or inability to evacuate. Yet the National Institute of Standards and Technology as well as the Code Council take it as a given that the fact that people died proves we need tougher building codes. It’s as if every building should be built to withstand the most horrible thing that has ever happened.

It is exactly what the FDA says. The fact that there was a foodborne illness outbreak proves to the FDA that we need tougher food safety standards.

This is, however, not real life. A skyscraper can always be made safer and easier to evacuate, just as a field can always place traps more frequently, build larger buffer zones and become safer and safer.

It has long been obvious that consumers are not necessarily prepared to pay more for safer product — that many will pass up, say, irradiated beef for a cheaper alternative.

The General Services Administration clearly looks at safety as not some superior goal trumping all the needs of society but, rather, part of the evaluative process. When it comes to enhanced building safety, the GSA says, “The bigger question that needs to be answered is at what economic cost to society?”

We can only hope that FDA will start questioning its own methods of addressing this question.

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