Recommended viewing: "Building On Ground Zero"

Last night, I caught a repeat of the NOVA/PBS program that originally aired on 9/5/06. Entitled, “Building on Ground Zero,” this show follows up the…

Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Why the Towers Fell,” and probes the conclusions of the government’s engineering investigation into the World Trade Center’s collapse on 9/11. The show features updated analysis of the devastating attack and looks at how subsequent knowledge gained will shape skyscrapers of the future.

The program reviews the findings of National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and examines the feasibility and practicality of following those beefed up building code recommendations. Shyam Sunder of NIST goes through the new code suggestions and explains the importance and logic behind each one.

As the program unfolds, an interesting moral debate is illustrated through interviews with Jonathan Barnett and William Connolly. It clearly demonstrates the quandary faced by architects and facility professionals charged with creating safe skyscrapers.

JONATHAN BARNETT (Fire Safety Engineer): The risk of dying by fire at home is far greater than the risk of dying in a high rise office fire. High rise buildings in general are safer than other buildings. I don’t want to spend money if I’m not going to get value for my money. The probability of a fire that gets out of control in today’s world is very small.

WILLIAM CONNOLLY (New Jersey Division of Codes and Standards): There’s two sides to the traditional risk equation, the probability that something will happen and the consequences if something happens. The two of them together add up to the risk. Most of those people that talk about what has happened, statistically, in the past, are just focused on probability. It doesn’t happen that often, so we don’t need to worry about it.

Meanwhile, a late breaking BBC report says, “a building has collapsed in the Italian city of Milan, killing at least two people and injuring 50, including children, Italian news reports say. Emergency officials said an explosion started a fire which caused the building to collapse.”

Particularly compelling are the thoughts of Leslie Robertson, chief engineer of the World Trade Center. Initially blamed for faulty design, the construction of the Twin Towers was later cleared of any fault, thus exonerating Robertson of any responsibility in the eventual failure of the iconic structures.

As Chief Engineer of the World Trade Center, Leslie Robertson was responsible for its strength and safety.

LESLIE ROBERTSON: Ground Zero is a very disturbing place for me. And I cannot escape the people who died there or…even if I’m looking down into a pile of rubble, it’s still, to me, somehow, up there in the air, burning. And I cannot make that go away.

NARRATOR: Shanghai will soon lay claim to the tallest building in the world, ironically called the World Financial Center, which will soar 101 stories, topped by a giant opening that frames the city. The new building will be so tall and majestic, it’s destined to become the visual icon of Shanghai, as surely as the World Trade Center once symbolized New York. So perhaps it’s fitting that Leslie Robertson leads an engineering team that will forge a building that defines its city.

Yet it wasn’t so very long ago that Robertson wondered if he would ever work again.

LESLIE ROBERTSON: With the disaster of the World Trade Center, and the fact that the structure ultimately collapsed, I felt that it would be, kind of, the end of our company. I thought it might be the end of me as an engineer.

NARRATOR: But architect Bill Pedersen did not hesitate to bring Robertson on board the World Financial Center design team.

WILLIAM PEDERSON: Leslie Robertson, perhaps, had more experience in the design of the tall building than almost any other structural engineer. We had absolutely no concern about his ability to design a structure that was extraordinarily safe and efficient.

A full transcript of the program is available to read online. It can be found here.