Photo: Matthew McDermott
By Kheir Al-Kodmany
October 21, 2014

For 40 years, Los Angeles’ building code has required all buildings 75 feet and taller to have a rooftop emergency helicopter landing facility in a location approved by the fire chief. The idea in 1974, when the law was passed, was to make skyscrapers safer, in part as a reaction to a catastrophic fire in Brazil. But we know now there are better ways to make structures like the landmark U.S. Bank tower safe. I, for one, am cheering for the recently announced end of a policy requiring flat-topped buildings in Los Angeles. It’s a policy that holds lessons for tall buildings everywhere.

As an urban planner and architect (before becoming a professor, I was an architect at SOM-Chicago, the former Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), I know safety is more critical in tall buildings than in low-rise structures because tall buildings host a greater number of inhabitants and are themselves expensive investments. I also know that, if appropriately designed and built, skyscrapers are safer in many respects than low-rise and mid-rise buildings. They have concrete cores that are designed to withstand the extreme lateral forces and loads that occur during high winds and earthquakes. Fire safety systems in skyscrapers include sprinklers and wet and dry standpipes, to which firefighting hoses can be connected.

Codes for tall building safety were found to be deficient following the World Trade Center collapse in 2001. The National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded it would have taken more than three hours to evacuate the buildings if they had been full of people at the time of the attacks. In the process, 14,000 people – 28% of the occupants – would have died because of insufficient stairwell capacity.

NIST stressed that time is of the essence in evacuation. And helipads have a very small impact on evacuation times. Helicopters take time to land, load people, and take off. They only take a small number of a skyscraper’s occupants each time. Research indicated that if the World Trade Center rooftops had been accessible (the helipad fell in disuse), helicopters couldn’t have landed because of the heat and smoke.

Our rarely used helipads may enhance the perception of safety but do little else. The NIST study called for a smarter strategy of using building design for safety. Among the key elements:

Assume that the full building will evacuate. Conventionally, builders of high-rises have assumed “staged evacuations” will occur. During a fire on one floor, occupants were supposed to evacuate to adjacent floors until it was safe to return. After the World Trade Center collapse, it became clear a tall building’s occupants would likely want to evacuate all at once in an emergency situation. NIST recommends that all non-residential skyscrapers that exceed 420 feet in height have three stairwells and fireproofing capable of withstanding a pressure of 1,000 pounds per square foot (in the event of a bomb, gas breakout, or something similar).

Allow some office workers to use elevators in an emergency. Conventionally, in an emergency situation, elevators in high-rise buildings are used by firefighters only. NIST recommends building elevators that can withstand fires and structural damage in the concrete core of a building.

Mark stairwells and exits with glow-in-the-dark signs. As simple as it sounds, not every building has such markings, especially those built before the 2000s. New York was the first large city to require luminous markings in stairwells, five years after the 9/11 tragic events. More than 1,500 buildings now have the markings, but that’s still a small fraction of America’s tall buildings.

If a city adopts these recommendations – and also asks tall buildings to include refuge floors, video-camera surveillance, and automatic sprinkler systems — the safety of the skyscrapers will increase significantly.

Relaxing the requirements of a helipad also will empower architects to create more interesting rooftops. A space 50-by-50-feet wide at minimum is required for a helipad spot, plus a typical additional 25 feet around it as a buffer. This has resulted in a repetitive, boxy roof shape in the Los Angeles skyline.

Beyond aesthetics, boxy rooftops with helipads are really a missed opportunity to create “green” roofs with sustainable features. Now Los Angeles can do something like the spiral form in the rooftop of Shanghai Tower in Shanghai that captures rainwater. Some towers’ tops are now designated for wind turbines to harness wind energy, such as the Strata Tower in London.

There’s nothing to fear – and much to gain – in relaxing the helipad requirement. I, for one, will be watching to see what inventive skyscrapers Angelinos come up with.

Kheir Al-Kodmany is a professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

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