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Architects look to fireproof lifts following WTC attacks

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Designers of tall buildings in the post-11 September era will concentrate on concrete cores, reducing evacuation times and even looking to dramatic means of leaving a building, such as escape pods, parachutes or aeroplane-style chutes.

But the most likely advance will be a new era of fireproof lifts, which firms including Arup are working on at the moment.

That is the view of Mike Warner, chairman of the building consultancy group at property giant Insignia Richard Ellis. Warner was at MIPIM in Cannes last week to take part in a seminar on the future approach to designing and constructing tall buildings following the attacks.

Warner's firm was project manager of the Commercial Union Tower in London after the IRA bombing in 1992, but he said that the difference now after the World Trade Center is that the US is a far more litigious society and insurance is holding the design of new tall buildings back.

'In the US, the question of responsibility and insurance is much more the driver, not tenant confidence. The question is now: 'What is our legal responsibility - are we going to get sued?'' said Warner. 'The US is paralysed at the moment in development terms - they don't know what to build.'

Yet he forecasts the current period of uncertainty in the US about towers will be over in nine months. Contrastingly, Warner's colleagues in the Far East report that the building boom is continuing apace, with huge tower developments, such as a new KPF 52-storey offices scheme and 95-storey World Financial Centre in Shanghai, ready to go.

Elsewhere, a linguistic transformation is happening, with projects being reclassified from 'high-rise' to 'medium-rise': 'Everyone's trying to scale down, ' said Warner.

Although futuristic systems of escape, such as escape pods and wires which can be attached to adjacent buildings could get caught up in the insurance problem, Warner also believes that the bunker mentality, looking to build 'armour coated' buildings, is also untenable.

Instead, measures such as concrete cores and wider use of evacuation stairs are the way forward.

And the fire-treated lift, capable of evacuating large numbers quickly and safely, could be possible with the next generation of tall building projects.

Paul Katz, KPF partner in New York, told the AJ that this sounded feasible, although those lifts which were not fireproof needed to be adequately distinguished. He added that many of those in the WTC died in lifts after fire and smoke spread down the shafts.

Warner also believes that the WTC experience will be for the US what Ronan Point was to the UK, especially insofar as building codes will be amended concerning progressive collapse. 'The WTC building was innovative for its time and it survived very, very well considering what was thrown at it, ' said Warner. Katz pointed out that towers in countries like China were built to withstand 'a higher level of disaster' and had more stringent codes and rules about 'refuge floors' and firemen's elevators since schemes had to cope with earthquakes and typhoons. 'They're showing a lot more optimism and eagerness to build, too, ' said Katz.

DEGW's Despina Katsikakis said at MIPIM that her practice is producing guidelines for tall buildings to feed into the London Plan. The firm is reviewing the criteria for the siting of skyscrapers based primarily on existing and potential infrastructure.

Katsikakis said there was a move to ease criteria of strategic views, and while the views issue will not go away, the guidelines will lay down new ground rules. DEGW's findings will be released to coincide with the draft London Plan later this year.

Meanwhile, a survey from GVA Grimley reports that more than two-thirds of the UK's top 250 companies with a London headquarters, and more than half with a city centre HQ, are worried about safety and security in the wake of 11 September. Almost half of property managers said they would not be happy working in buildings taller than 20 storeys.

But a new study by IRE for the British Council for Offices says London has a 'vital business need for tall buildings' - London's reaction to 11 September has been 'phlegmatic' and 'stoical'.

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