OccuBarn trial: Architect vouches for safety

Architect’s original drawing of OccuBarn

On Day 3 of the OccuBarn trial (June 18), the defense brought architect Kash Bennett to the stand to testify as an expert witness. Bennett works for the firm RTKL Associates, Inc. The architect who actually designed the structure has chosen to remain anonymous.

Charges against the defendants include failure to obey in an emergency situation. Throughout the trial, defense counsel has been attempting to poke a hole in the assumption that this was an emergency situation in the first place. One plank in police rationale for declaring an emergency is that the structure was dangerous and therefore a threat to public safety.

The defense needs to address safety concerns brought up in testimony by prosecution witnesses. Lt. Robert LaChance of U.S. Park Police said he heard “cracking” noises and that the structure started to collapse when police were extricating the last of the Occupiers from the rafters. And the DC Regulatory Affairs inspector who posted “Danger” signs on the OccuBarn testified that by definition the structure was not safe because it had not gone through the permitting process.

Bennet prepared for testimony by reviewing blueprints, drawings, and a 3-D “sketch-up” and found that they were in accordance with many pictures of the structure “in location.” The OccuBarn was intended to be a temporary structure, and Bennett testified that generally such structures are not any less stable, but “over time” one could be concerned with stability since they have no embedded foundation.

On an easel, Bennett drew diagrams to demonstrate architecturally sound design principles, including triangulation and cross-bracing, and compared them with the design of the OccuBarn. He noted that some of the wooden beams were larger than standard for this type of structure.

“This structure in my estimation is actually overbuilt,” he said, explaining that usually a structure is constructed only as safe and functional as necessary. “Everything else is extra cost. [This structure has] an extra margin of safety.” He concluded that it was built in a structurally sound way, repeatedly calling it “strong” and “robust.”

Viewing a photo of Park Service bulldozers demolishing the building, he pointed out how strong the structure was. “See how difficult it was for the demolition crew to take it down,” he said.

Cracking noises, such as those reported by Lt. LaChance, could be accounted for by “settling,” or “a little play in the joinery.”

While he didn’t calculate wind lodes on the structure, saying that such calculations would depend in part on information he didn’t have, such as wood grade, he claimed that it was irrelevant in a structure both small and sturdy. Large temporary structures like concert venues might need wind lodes calculated, but under strong winds, he said, “other tents in the park would be in danger before this would flex a millimeter.”

Under cross-examination, Bennett admitted that “without testing it, you couldn’t be 100% certain [of structural integrity].” But he was confident in his evaluative judgment, saying, “Can a human lift an elephant? The answer is obvious.”

The DC Regulatory Agency inspector testimony and the prosecution’s cross-examination of Bennett relied heavily on demonstrating non-compliance with DC building code. On Day 4, the prosecution will bring its own expert witness, Jatinder Khokhar, to the stand to rebut Bennett’s testimony and testify on building codes, inspection and the permitting process.

McPherson Park, like all parks in the District, is federal land, and it’s not even certain that DC Code even applies. We expect defense counsel to pull that punch in the late stages of trial.

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