Change on the Horizon

Change on the Horizon

For decades the Los Angeles skyline has been relegated to “also-ran” status compared to the iconic expanses of cities like New York and Chicago. One commonly cited contributor is a requirement in the city’s 1974 fire code that calls for rooftop helicopter landing space, keeping high rise tops uniformly flat and stubby.

Innovative skyscraper forms could be on the horizon, however, if a Los Angeles Fire Department working group can identify enough building safety innovations to justify changes to these requirements.

At the request of Fire Chief Brian Cummings, Deputy Fire Chief Mark Stormes has assembled officials from the Fire Department and the Department of Building and Safety, local architects, and public safety consultants to report on possible changes to the regulations. Chief Stormes described the group as a “bunch of bright people with good ideas in the field of design and structural engineering,” who will hopefully “do away with the perception that we aren’t willing to listen.” The working group so far seems to be living up to its title, having already met on several occasions in recent weeks, with another meeting scheduled for the end of August.

The working group grew out of an effort to overhaul the department’s 1970s code, a process that closed for public comment in June. According to the department website, the new code will be “less complicated for developers and users, and be more consistent with state code requirements and format.”

Some city entities are already clearing the way for high-rise innovation in the hopes that the helipad requirement will be amended. The recently adopted Hollywood Community Plan (HCP), for instance, included policy LU.2.9.C, which asks planners to “Support architectural innovation and dynamic roof forms while balancing life safety issues in consultation with the Fire Department.” But the HCP can only make policy recommendations. Only a change to the fire code can allow this type of architectural innovation.

In a more direct form of political pressure, Councilmember Jose Huizar, who represents most of Downtown LA, recently wrote a letter asking Chief Cummings to rethink the helipad requirement as the Fire Department updates the fire code. “Perhaps the process of adopting a new fire code presents an opportunity for the LAFD to modernize its approach to construction and consider amending policies to provide alternatives to the helipad/heliport policy,” wrote Huizar.

The Fire Department reacted quickly to Huizar’s letter by forming the working group within two weeks of his request, but the department has yet to reveal its intentions. There are reasons to think that the requirement is likely to stay at least partly intact:  Stormes’s explanation of his goals for the working group—“to blend the needs of incident commanders and the concept of roof top operations in the event of the rare incident where fire suppression systems and evacuation routes are compromised”—imply that at least part of the helipad requirement will survive changes to the code. The department has also already invested about $100 million dollars in helicopter technology and training, which it doesn’t want to go to waste.

Compromise could be possible, however. According to Nathan Wittasek, a building codes consultant at Exponent (an engineering and scientific consulting company) and a member of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the working group could explore small changes to the helipad requirement that would “leave the main requirement intact, but…give the chief some leeway to look at other options…that could open it up to become a custom solution for each building.”

Wittasek advocates for firefighter elevators and occupant evacuation elevators as “potentially better uses of limited resources” in high rises than helipads. Both are designed with pressurization systems and “enhanced passive barriers” that control for the impacts of smoke and water, protecting them during an emergency. He adds that some cities have found ways to improve the use of stairs for emergency evacuations. For instance, following 9-11, revisions to the New York City Building Code required larger, more dispersed stairways with advanced way finding technology. Wittaseck points to studies showing that the use of elevators and stairs during a firefighter-assisted evacuation greatly decreases evacuation times from buildings over 40 stories tall. Although fire safety experts can quantify the benefits of firefighter-assisted evacuation via elevators and stairs, information about the benefits of helipad evacuations has not been collected. “They’re just not used as much,” he said.

Stormes said that the process of amending the fire code could take up to a year. Meanwhile, the architectural form of at least one high-rise project stands to benefit from potential changes to the helipad requirement. Earlier this month, architect AC Martin began circulating new renderings for its Wilshire Grand project, approved for the corner of 7th and Figueroa streets. Although the original plans have been scaled back, the current renderings feature a slanted roof that would require a novel approach to the helipad requirement.