Is Design To Blame If a Building Collapses After a Nuclear Attack?

The World Trade Center's Tower 7 collapsed at 5:21 pm on September 11, 2001, after fires ignited by debris from the first and second towers weakened its structural columns. But were the building's designers and developers responsible for anticipating the attack?

According to a new decision from a Manhattan judge: no. The opinion stems from a suit brought against Tower 7's developer Larry Silverstein, pictured below, and his construction company by Con Ed, the owner of a power substation that was crushed when the tower collapsed on 9/11.

Is Design To Blame If a Building Collapses After a Nuclear Attack?

Image: AP/Mark Lennihan.

Yesterday, more than 12 years later, 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge Rosemary Pooler argued that there is no way a developer, designer, or contractor could have foreseen the attacks. "It is simply incompatible with common sense and experience to hold that defendants were required to design and construct a building that would survive the events of September 11, 2001," she wrote.

According to Pooler, the same basic idea applies to all kinds of catastrophic events:

Under Con Ed's approach to liability, those who designed and constructed the building would presumably be liable if, for example, 7 WTC collapsed as a result of a fire triggered by a nuclear attack on lower Manhattan.

Now there's an interesting thought: Based on Con Ed's argument, the designers and developers of new buildings would have to design their structures to withstand all kinds of unlikely attacks. A city where every tower must have a foundation that can withstand the force of a nuclear bomb, say, or have a ventilation system that can withstand chemical warfare.

Luckily, based on this decision, that future of near-limitless liability, in which everything built in the city must be prepared for even the most mathematically improbable events, is less likely to occur. But it's fascinating to see how the scaffolding of legal responsibility and insurance liability both shape the future of the construction industry and, in turn, the city around us. [Reuters]

Lead image: AP/Mark Lennihan.