The New York City Department of Buildings today convened a public hearing to consider changes to the city’s building code that would improve safety features in high-rise structures. The public hearing comes after the department established the World Trade Center Building Code Task Force in March.

Alterations to the building code must be passed by city council, and the task force will make recommendations for changes by the end of the year. Since its formation in March, the task force has discussed new standards for emergency lighting and egress signage. Among other changes under consideration are creating ‘safe areas’ in new buildings (walling off elevator vestibules, for instance) and retrofitting sprinklers to high-rises constructed before 1984. If legislation to change the code is sponsored, then the task force will be asked to draft its specific language.

The task force’s five working groups have contacted victims groups, engineering experts and New York City’s real estate community in order to strike a balance between protectiveness and economic practicality. "I happen to believe that high-rises in New York City are the safest buildings in the world," says Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. "Our code has always been the toughest, the building materials the toughest, the unions the best. But that doesn’t mean there is room for safety measures, but we have to evaluate them, the cost and benefit of them."

Spinola cites sprinkler retrofits as an example of this give-and-take. Rather than mandating that retrofits occur all at once, an expensive proposition, the task force will recommend that these high-rises be retrofitted with sprinklers over the course of 15 years. "When you calculate the cost of sprinkling floors over 15 years, it’s fairly small –after a tenant leaves a space, you have to do the space anyway," Spinola continues.

But as today’s hearing suggests, by opening this conversation to the public, this balance is about to dissipate. Commentators’ reactions ranged from praise for the buildings department’s work, to a strong stance against any and all compromises-cum-shortcuts.

Jack Snell, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said the task force’s work "may serve as a model to help other U.S. cities facing similar challenges." Should the task force draft changes to the New York City building code, its work will be based on its own findings and on NIST’s three-part World Trade Center Response Plan.

On the other hand, "the parents and friends of the victims will not accept window dressing," declares Sally Regenhard, founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign. Regenhard’s son Christian, a probationary firefighter, died in the Sept. 11 attacks, and she stated that the building code as it currently stands "allows these people [the Port Authority and developers in general] to build these buildings and walk away from them."

According to buildings department spokesperson Ilyse Fink, today’s is the only public forum planned. Nevertheless, the improvements for which Regenhard and other commentators proposed — widening staircases and surrounding structural members with masonry rather than spray-on fireproofing, for example — will reopen the task force’s juggling act between safety and economical decision-making as it finalizes its recommendations.

In addition, the task force must consider the ramifications of its choices. Its conclusions may affect underwriting standards as well as FAR calculations. Code amendments may also constrain architectural expression. James Howie, a senior associate of Perkins Eastman Architects and Task Force member, argues otherwise, that an architecture of "safety and assurance" is a creative opportunity. "All codes are words. Architects have been able to interpret them…with exciting forms and without compromising any of the requirements. Will new requirements add to their vocabulary? I would say yes," he says.

The World Trade Center Building Code Task Force is still in dialogue – internally as well as with experts. That it today reached out to citizens is a necessary move, but now subjects to political debate the research of real estate economics, engineering and architecture.