Multipurpose Buildings: A Towering Challenge for Security Planners

The new Burj Dubai Tower will rise 5,250 feet off the desert floor, only ten yards short of thrusting a full mile into the air, and when completed will be the tallest man-made structure on earth.  Expected to be open for occupancy in September of next year, the Tower will be able to offer future tenants 160 habitable floors packed with premium retail space, offices, and luxury apartments.  Because of its great height and enviable location, it also will present unique challenges to security designers and planners. Perhaps of foremost concern is that it will be an “icon” structure located in one of the most unstable regions of the globe.  The World Trade Center Towers also were icon structures, and terrorists have often viewed such buildings as particularly desirable targets because their destruction not only causes a major loss of life but also generates such huge media attention around the world. All multipurpose buildings present large and extremely complex security needs – and, as with other venues, those needs have to be closely evaluated as part of a comprehensive security assessment.  The assessment also will take into consideration such related factors as the location of the structure (in terms of terrorism and crime); its vulnerability to natural disasters; the threats represented by hazardous materials spills, power failures, and severe weather conditions (snow, high winds, extreme heat, etc.) as well as fire and/or arson; and various situational engineering and design issues. This latter category, depending on the design features of the structure, invites comparisons to the 1981 collapse of the Hyatt Regency Hotel walkway in Kansas City and the mysterious loss of windows at the 60-story John Hancock Tower in Boston – where, on windy days, four-by-eleven foot windows in the Tower would drop off for no apparent reason and shower glass on the streets below.    

Laminated or Minimal Glass, But Absolutely No Atriums 

Only when the threat assessment has been completed can a detailed security assessment be undertaken. Obviously, it is always easier and more cost-efficient to incorporate security enhancements on or into a structure before construction than to retrofit those enhancements on a building already completed.  If the building is located in a high-threat area, such as Baghdad, or is an inherently high-threat structure such as an American embassy almost anywhere in the world, a number of It is always easier and more cost-efficient to incorporate security enhancements on or into a structure before construction than to retrofit those enhancements on a building already completed special security enhancements and upgrades will have to be considered. Among those enhancements and upgrades will be substantial setbacks, blast walls, progressive-collapse design features, a major use of laminated glass (or the minimal use of any type of glass), and the prohibition of parking underneath and/or adjacent to the structure.  Another consideration should be the elimination of atriums. Atriums are a bomber’s best friend and allow huge amounts of pressure to build up that blow out walls and cut supports or shake down a structure (depending on whether high-order or low-order explosives are involved).  The U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut was pancaked in 1983 when a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden Mercedes truck into the barracks’ lobby/atrium at the Beirut Airport; that audacious and preventable act caused the loss of 241 American servicemen, mostly Marines. By contrast, buildings with multiple well-reinforced walls not only dissipate the blast effects of an explosion but also reduce the likelihood of damaging a building’s structural integrity. Security designers also have to keep in mind, when recommending enhancements and/or construction changes, that there will always be tradeoffs between security requirements and the functionality of any structure.  An airport, for example, that is so secure that it impedes the flow of people, cargo, and luggage defeats the very purpose for which it was created.  As one security expert commented, “The safest structure will always be one buried in the Nevada desert with a tall fence around it and armed guards.  But who needs a building in the Nevada desert?” 

Blind Spots Buttressed by Intimidating Invisibility 

The interior spaces of buildings also must be protected, of course – and this is achieved by the use, for example, of access-control systems (to screen visitors), closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, sensors (primarily to detect fire, smoke, or chemicals), and the elimination of blind spots and dark areas where thieves and rapists can hide. Some of the most highly innovative secure structures in the world are currently being designed and built by Al Corbi of SAFE (Strategically Armored & Fortified Environments).  Corbi, who has worked with the U.S. Justice Department and with various foreign governments on extremely sensitive security systems, has created almost impregnable structures that require few if any guards or operators.  All of his walls and doors are built with impenetrable ballistic cores, his windows are made of bullet-resistant materials, and everything is tied together by a number of sensory and tactical systems, coordinated by computers that not only can detect any potential threat but also take swift and appropriate action to lock down the entire facility if necessary. SAFE’s system isolates those in the structure until the detected (or suspected) threat can be contained or neutralized.  One method of doing so is to design the structure in such a way that each and every access point (halls, stairways, etc.) can be turned into a mantrap that possesses the ability to introduce tactical systems that can be used to incapacitate intruders.  The key to his systems, says Corbi, is their invisibility.  “For security to be effective,” he maintains, “it must be invisible.  One can’t defeat what can’t be seen … and there is nothing more intimidating than the unknown.” Another potential security vulnerability is the landscaping surrounding a structure.  Several years ago my company was hired to work with architects and planners in creating a new financial center outside the capital of a prominent developing country. We recommended that campus-like landscaping be adopted for the site, which covered several hundred acres; the landscaping would feature closely trimmed grass and stand-alone trees, which not only would be visually attractive but also eliminate the security vulnerabilities posed by clumps or thickets (of trees).  We also mandated that there be no thick foliage next to any structure because it would provide cover for intruders who had breached the guarded and patrolled perimeter.  Similarly, all foliage was banned within ten meters of the center’s perimeter fence so that it would not potentially block the CCTV cameras and line-of-sight sensors that were to be installed.      In the final analysis, all buildings are vulnerable, to some extent, to a number of threats, both internal and external, but with careful analysis and proper planning almost any structure can be made much more secure without undermining its function or disfiguring its aesthetics.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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