VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Well-designed buildings shouldn’t forget security

Keywords Environment / Government
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The recent 10th anniversary observance of the bombing of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by a domestic terrorist is once again a reminder to all of us in architecture-and all those who buy our services-that security has become more important in many cases than esthetics and efficiency these days in building design.

We also are reminded by the events of nearly four years ago, when foreign terrorists used commercial aircraft as guided missiles to level the World Trade Center towers and cause death and destruction at the Pentagon.

It’s doubtful that any building design could have withstood the explosive force of hundreds of gallons of jet fuel. Indeed, the rapid melting of structural steel in the New York towers has sent engineers across the nation into a flurry of research to determine if it’s possible that different designs or building materials can resist such potent force.

Finding ways to cope with terrorist threats is only part of the problem, as such high-profile school incidents as Columbine in Colorado remind us. Domestic criminal behavior can be equally troublesome.

The challenge for architects these days is to find acceptable ways to make public buildings secure without resorting to a “fortress” mentality that minimizes access and openness.

Most of us agree that we can’t protect ourselves from all risks, but ignoring potential new threats is not acceptable either.

Thwarting crime via design

Although the concept has been around since the 1970s, architects and their clients today are taking more seriously the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED (often pronounced “sep-ted”). Its roots go back to a 1971 book by the same name, authored by C. Ray Jeffrey.

Prof. Jeffrey asserted that security hinges on how well building design incorporates three basic features:

Ease of surveillance

limited and restricted access

environments in which people live and/or work in protected, designated spaces where they feel ownership and can easily identify intruders.

Indeed, the CPTED philosophy is resurfacing so rapidly that many communities across the country are now adopting ordinances which require expert reviews of building plans to assure that these concepts are incorporated.


The surveillance feature involves the prudent design of building entrances, windows, sidewalks, parking lots and reception areas that are well lighted and easy to view from varied perspectives.

It incorporates new technologies of electronic surveillance such as multi-camera close-circuit television to scan both the interior and exterior of buildings.

Ins and outs

Meanwhile, limitations on access through strategically located entrances and exits, skillful layout of landscaping, fencing, roadways and sidewalks and development of buffer zones are designed to make it more difficult for persons of mischievous intent to get close enough long enough to go undetected.

Under control

Finally, the well-conceived plotting of seating areas, fencing, pavement and space allocation should create a perception that certain areas are controlled.

It would be unheard of a decade ago, but today’s design consultants of public buildings such as schools and government structures-accompanied by their architects-would be well-advised to consult terrorism experts before locking their designs in concrete.

Getting help

Federal, state and local government assistance abounds in these fields. Accessing the recommendations of the U.S. General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program could be a useful place to start. Add to that the resources available through the National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org).

Meanwhile, a host of consultants in security issues also has blossomed in recent years. But one word of caution. Before consulting one of the new breed of private terrorism consultants, check out their credentials thoroughly.

Simply serving as a security guard at a warehouse or as a street cop in a rough neighborhood are not automatic credentials for counseling you on how to make a new building safer.

We went through a period in the 1950s and ’60s when many Americans adopted a “bunker” mentality out of fear of a nuclear holocaust with the Soviet Union. There is no point in barricading ourselves so completely that normal commerce and social interaction become impossible.

Nevertheless, today’s public building designs must make security a higher priority, and there are reasonable ways to do it without lapsing into paranoia.

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