Innovation & Design

Safety and Security—Without the Fortress Look


Designers of public-sector emergency-response buildings eschew the bunker image to incorporate transparency, sustainability, and state-of-the-art technology

By the morning rush hour on August 8, personnel from New York City's Office of Emergency Management (OEM) had already shifted into high gear. Just as New Yorkers were preparing to begin their commutes, an intense summer storm dumped 3 inches of rain on the city in an hour, flooding and crippling the subway system. OEM officials were closely monitoring public transit system conditions and at the same time were coordinating the agencies sent to assess damage in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge, where heavy winds, later determined to be a tornado, toppled trees and tore roofs off houses. And they were keeping track of the weather forecast, readying cooling centers around the city to help residents cope with expected temperatures in the 90s and high humidity.

The nerve center of this activity was the OEM's new headquarters in downtown Brooklyn. Completed in the fall of 2006, it is just one of several of the generation of public-sector emergency-response buildings designed and built in the U.S. after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It is the agency's first permanent home since its former headquarters, at Seven World Trade Center, was destroyed in those attacks.

Though a variety of configurations are possible, emergency-response centers like that in New York City generally have similar programs. They include a large room that is dormant most of the time, but activated during emergencies. The room, known sometimes as the emergency operations center or the incident-response center, provides workstations for representatives of federal, state, and city agencies. Usually adjoining this often double-height space is a smaller meeting room for high-ranking officials to gather and develop a coordinated response.

A key element of emergency-service buildings is one room—called the "watch command" at New York City's OEM—staffed 24-hours a day. From here, personnel continuously monitor information sources such as news broadcasts, weather data, 911 calls, and police and fire dispatch systems. Emergency-response centers also generally include facilities such as press rooms, conference rooms, kitchens, and sometimes sleeping areas. And they also must provide office space for full-time staff engaged in activities such as preparing evacuation plans, developing responses to specific hazards, and educating the public. In New York, about 150 people are focused on such efforts. "We are more like a think tank than a heavy-duty emergency-response organization," says Rachel Dickinson, the agency's deputy commissioner of administration.

For New York City's OEM, officials chose a downtown site with an existing low-rise office building built in 1954. The location was attractive because of its easy access to public transportation and City Hall in Lower Manhattan, within walking distance just over the Brooklyn Bridge. In addition, the existing building, at the edge of a city park, had no immediately adjacent structures—a rarity in such a dense urban environment. "The building had the advantage of being stand-alone and securable," says Henry Jackson, OEM deputy commissioner.

As part of the $50 million gut renovation and addition, contractors demolished interior partitions, finishes, and the exterior enclosure. Using the existing reinforced-concrete structure, they built a state-of-the-art facility that incorporates features including redundancies in its mechanical and telecommunications systems, enhanced blast resistance, perimeter security, and monitoring and filtration of outside air, intended to protect it from a variety of threats, both natural and man-made.

Despite these precautions, New York City's OEM does not look like a fortress. In keeping with the agency's public mission, the architect, Swanke Hayden Connell, worked to endow the building with a civic presence. "The OEM is not a bunker or a container for technology," says Joseph Aliotta, Swanke Hayden Connell principal.

Aliotta and his team relocated the core of the building from the center of the floor plan to the main facade. The new configuration allowed creation of a large clear-span space for the third-floor emergency-operations center and a loftlike open office area below. Within this new core, the architects carved out terraces that help screen generous expanses of glass. By using the depth of the core to create a screen, and by cladding the building with a combination of zinc panels and limestone—the facade material of a federal courthouse at the southern edge of the park and a group of other nearby civic building—the architects provide transparency and acknowledge the context.

Information-technology overload

Emergency-response facilities require a great deal of information technology. Shoehorning this infrastructure into the framework of an existing structure, as the design team was required to do in New York, often calls for inventive solutions. Just some of the services in the watch-command room, for example, are satellite, broadband, cable, radio, wireless, and land lines. A constrained floor-to-floor height of only 12 feet precluded also making the raised floor depth large enough to house an under-floor air system. Instead, contractors threaded air-handling units and ducts through open-web trusses supporting the roof. And in order to create the ideal sight lines from the room's four workstations to wall-mounted rear projection units, they eliminated the raised floor in half of the room, explains Steven Emspak, Shen Milsom Wilke principal, the project's communications, multimedia, and acoustical consultant.

As designers had done in New York City, the architects DeStefano and Partners created a veiled facade for their Illinois State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) in Springfield, completed in 2005. Partly motivated by an aggressive schedule that allowed only 19 months for design and construction of the 50,000-square-foot facility, DeStefano enclosed the two-story, steel-framed structure with a rain-screen system, providing a weatherproof envelope early in the construction process so that interior fitout could proceed. Contractors installed the finish cladding of limestone panels and perforated copper near the end of the construction process.

This facade strategy also screened the interior from view while allowing daylight into the building. For example, the "folded" entry elevation, clad in limestone, presents a seemingly impervious facade from the street. But hidden between the folds are windows that provide plenty of daylight for the reception area. Similarly, the copper scrim protects office windows, but allows daylight to filter through its perforations. "We tried to turn the project requirements into an architectural opportunity," says Avi Lothan, DeStefano design partner.

The veiled approach not only addressed scheduling and security concerns, but also provided protection from natural disasters. The impact load of a tree thrown into a window during a hurricane or tornado can be more difficult to design for than terrorist activity, according to Lothan. However, the screens act as a "sacrificial" layer and safeguard the glazing from such loads, he says. The copper, also used to create an enclosure for rooftop equipment, has the added benefit of shielding electromagnetic interference that could disrupt telecommunications, points out Michael Kuppinger, senior vice president of ESD, Chicago, the project's mechanical and technology consultant.

In case a natural disaster or terrorist activity compromises municipal services providing power, water, or sewage disposal, the SEOC, like most mission-critical facilities, incorporates many redundancies. It has a diesel generator and storage for potable water and mechanical system make-up water, allowing the building to function independently for up to three days, even in a "doomsday scenario," say Lothan.

Natural disasters were also a key concern for designers of the Los Angeles Emergency Operations Center (LA EOC), a county facility now under construction at the edge of Little Tokyo. "The building must remain operational after a major event," says Ernest Cirangle, AIA, HOK design principal. "And the most likely event here is an earthquake." To ensure that the LA EOC can withstand a large magnitude temblor, the 82,000-square-foot, two-story building is base-isolated and surrounded by a 4-foot-wide moat. Complicating the design of the friction-pendulum seismic-isolation system is an immediately adjacent fixed-base fire station that shares dispatch facilities with the EOC. The two buildings are connected on two levels with a corridor, but are otherwise separated by an 11-foot gap.

The EOC's structural integrity after a quake was not the design team's only worry. Because the building's "lifelines" must also remain intact, its power, gas, and water supply all have flexible connections to accommodate ground motion, says Cirangle.

Designed to evolve

Telecommunications and mechanical consultants stress the importance of careful planning in order to achieve designs that provide flexibility. Features such as raised floors and spare conduit and cabling in the right locations are key to allowing alterations and upgrades as technology inevitably matures and agency needs change. "A crystal ball also helps," jokes Shen Milsom Wilke's Emspak.

One development that Illinois SEOC officials see in their crystal ball is an eventual tripling of data-center staff. This anticipated growth not only has space-planning and data-infrastructure implications, but electrical and mechanical ramifications, as well, points out Thomas Condon, a senior consultant with Chicago-based SDI, the project's systems-integration consultant. "The density of computing power is directly related to heat generation," he says.

In order to mitigate the increased heat production, the data center will eventually require additional computer-room air-conditioning units, or CRACs, says ESD's Kuppinger. The piping and electrical service sufficient to handle these equipment additions are already in place, allowing CRAC installation without complicated or costly changes to the mechanical and electrical infrastructure, he explains.

The LEEDing edge

Like building owners throughout the country, emergency-response agencies are increasingly aware of the effect that the construction and operation of their facilities has on the environment and are taking steps to make their buildings more sustainable. One example is Austin, Texas's Combined Transportation, Emergency & Communications Center, which earned LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) after its completion in 2003, and is designed to use 20 percent less energy than a building that complies with code. The center's exterior envelope incorporates shading devices and high-performance glazing. The interior paints and sealants emit low levels of volatile organic compounds. And each workstation has a personal environmental-control system that includes a sound-masking device and allows occupants to change air flow and temperature. Many of these strategies not only improve building performance, but also enhance indoor air quality and acoustics, provide access to daylight and views, and generally create a more comfortable environment for employees, who sometimes work long shifts and are responsible for making difficult decisions in stressful situations, points out DMJM's Jose Palacios, the project's design principal.

In Los Angeles, county officials plan to pursue LEED certification for the the new OEM building after its completion next year. And this summer, the facility in Brooklyn became the first New York City–owned building to earn LEED certification when it was awarded a Silver rating. The agency decided to pursue certification even before passage of Local Law 86, which now requires that new city facilities adhere to USGBC standards. A green building is a good fit for the OEM, points out Dickinson, "since so much of our work revolves around issues that affect the environment."


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