A better footing for building safety?

Two months after the Hyatt Regency Hotel disaster in Kansas city, a major debate about safety is taking place within the nation's architectural and engineering industry.

Experts say the debate could lead to improvements in the designs of major new buildings across the United States. Among the authorities interviewed were some of those probing the collapse of two aerial walkways at the Kansas City hotel, where 112 people were killed.

As the Hyatt hotel prepares for a scheduled reopening Oct. 1, it is undergoing what investigators say may be the most exhaustive safety inspection of any hotel. More than 70,000 architectural documents are being examined and reexamined; chandeliers are being buttressed; an analysis of the structural support system of the ceiling is under way.

Kansas City Mayor Richard Berkley stresses that the personally will urge the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, which manages but does not own the property, to keep the hotel closed well beyond Oct. 1 if this team of investigators has any major reservations.

Looking at overall construction problems in the US, R. Randall Vosbeck, president of the American Institute of Architect (AIA), and other safety experts shared these recommendations and expectations:

* Poor quality workmanship in construction. "There is a general slip-page of concern about quality workmanship" in new buildings, says Mr. Vosbeck. But he was quick to point out that the infrequency of construction collapse demonstrates that the industry continues to enjoy an over-whelmingly good safety record. In the case of the Hyatt, the quallity of workmanship in areas that otherwise might have been dismissed as insignificant will be very closely examined.

* So-called "fast-tract construction." Fast-tract construction is an industry term for getting the building up as fas as possible with the latest management and technological capabilities. But Mr. Vosbeck warns that caution is necessary when it comes to unconventional designs. "We're applying some of the same management techniques to sophisticated, complicated structures that we are to the routine office building." While most professionals say the Hyatt walkways were not really innovative, they also were not that common -- none of the 59 other Hyatts had them.

* The need for more internal "checks and balances." Mr. Vosbeck and others say that contractors, architects, and others must not rely entirely on government inspectors. There is a "short-age of qualified inspectors," he avers. But in any case, builders and architects should thoroughly review projects themselves.

Fortunately, he added, a growing number of arhictectural firms now have "in-house" staff members checking and recheching the work of others in the firms.One of the big stumbling blocks to thorough reviews is cost.In the case of the Hyatt disaster, a spokesman for the Travelers Insurance Companies says that it would have cost approximately $250,000 to run a "computer check" of all design and construction elements of the Hyatt to see that there were no potential safety problems.

* The "low-bid" process. Traditionally, although certainly not as prevalent as in the public sector, private contractors give a great deal of weight to the lowest bid on a project. Mr. Vosbeck says too much emphasis is placed on this, sacrificing quality of materials and workmanship. However, Roger L. McCarthy, vice-president of Failure Analysis Associates, an engineering firm specializing in investigating building disasters, vehemently defends the low-bid process as a time-tested way of doing business. The low bid, he maintains, cannot be equated with unsafe design or materials.

Meanwhile, investigators aided by computers are endeavoring to find the probable cause or causes for the Hyatt accident. They are zeroing in on three major issues:

-- Design. Would the original architectural design of the walkways' support system have been stronger than the one finally used? If so, was the design changed because the one used was less expensive to construct?

-- Materials. Were washers that were used to attach the metal suspension rods to the walkways too small? Or was there something structurally weak about the steel beam in the walkways, since the rods with the washers ripped through it?

-- Hotel Operations. Was someone in the Hyatt Hotel Corporation aware of the maximum weight that could safety be placed on the walkways, and, if so, was this monitored?

Each of the seven major parties involved in the hotel's construction has hired its own investigating team. The National Bureau of Standards, at the request of Kansas City officials, also is conducting an intensive probe into the disaster. The Bureau of Standards has finished most of its "on site" analysis, and is conducting its laboratory test phase, expected to last at least another month.

Hyatt officials says they have been getting many "letters of support." A spokesman adds that "none of the business in our hotels has been adversely affected." The hotel corporation has asked that all the owners and builders of the other Hyatt Hotels review their design and construction plans to ensure the hotels "have been built and designed in a safe manner."

As for the future, Robert Gaynor, chairman of the citizens committee probing the safety of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency, says the hotel "is being professionally examined like no others structure before it or most likely ever again." But engineers and other experts say they hope that at least some of the attention being give this Hyatt will also be directed toward other buildings across the country.

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