Designing for Safety: Using Active, Passive Strategies to Mitigate Risks

While summer vacation takes most of our attention away from the school violence dominated the news cycle in the spring, the reality has not changed for students, staff, and administrators. The issue is especially acute at colleges and universities, where multiple buildings, open spaces, pedestrian walkways, and skyway systems challenge even the best campus police. With all of those physical attributes, providing necessary safety and security is a complex challenge. Architects and designers confront these challenges with comprehensive approaches to safety and security.

Understanding the role that design of the physical environment plays in creating a safe learning environment as well as a welcoming educational experience is the key to unlocking balance. Once colleges and universities have established their critical threats and risks, safety strategies can be used to mitigate those risks. While college safety officials typically incorporate active safety strategies and emergency response strategies, designers can delve into passive safety strategies that relate to the design of the buildings, site, or systems.

Active Safety Strategies

There are many aspects to be considered when implementing a total campus security plan. All colleges and universities use some form of active security strategies such as surveillance, access control, emergency call boxes, and safety patrol. Even though these types of strategies are handled by campus safety officials, designers can assist in making these strategies more effective.

By specifying the proper type of surveillance equipment and ensuring proper placement for the interior and exterior of a building, blind spots can be eliminated. For effective surveillance, a common myth must be busted – the more cameras the merrier. It is not encouraged to spend money on extra cameras, when a good layout and design will do the trick.

Access control is another common design challenge since many campuses are considered public facilities, and as such need to be kept open to the public. To complicate matters even further, many campuses have robust skyway and tunnel networks that need to stay open. Careful thought and consideration should be given to the types of doors, hardware, technology, and locking functions.

 While research finds that emergency call boxes are rarely used, their presence can be a comfort to students and parents. More popular at urban campuses intermingled within the city, these call boxes provide a way for anyone on campus to find help. Designers can help locate these call boxes in appropriate places around campus so that they become an effective crisis management solution.

Passive Safety Strategies

Lighting: It is important to have intentional conversations with your design team about lighting. Exterior lighting can enhance safety and security if it is designed properly, but if done incorrectly lighting can make a space less safe. Poorly designed lighting can actually be helpful to criminals by producing shadows that disguise them. Also, being temporarily blinded by a glaring light source makes you an easier target for criminals, and limits your ability to see their face.

In lieu of more and brighter lights, practical lighting that directs light downward in appropriate places will both help with security and minimize light pollution. Fully shielded light fixtures that shine the light downward will not create glare and contrast. The goal is to provide effective lighting that actually helps people be safe and not just feel safe.

Visibility: Clear sightlines can improve safety on campus, both inside a building and outside. Metropolitan State University, located in Saint Paul, is considered an urban campus. Enhancing visibility was key in the design of their new Student Center. During the planning process, the location of the security desk was thoughtfully placed to ensure clear sightlines to both the campus and public entrances and into key public areas such as their café. The location of the security desk is immediately visible to all who enter the building and is intended to promote a sense of security.

To improve sightlines on campus grounds, make sure views to the public pathways are unobstructed and properly lit so it’s easy to view the outside from interior spaces at night. While landscaping is always a nice touch, it can also conceal threats. Ground plantings should be trimmed low and kept away from pathways and building entrances. Tree canopies should be kept above sightlines and not block security cameras.

Wayfinding: When visiting a new place for the first time, the human mind begins to make a mental map. It begins to create a visual account of the spatial connections and distances between locations. Each time the same place is visited, the mental map improves and the space becomes more familiar. Buildings that are designed with a simple and understandable flow tend to be easier to navigate and remember. Other design methods to employ for ease of wayfinding include providing common color schemes, graphics, and floor or ceiling patterns. These elements provide necessary clues about a place, whether in panic mode or not.

When designing a building for wayfinding and safety, it is valuable to note that people are more likely to take the same route they entered rather than the shortest or most direct route to exit. Having familiarity with an exit is more important to people and will cause them less stress than taking an unknown path. Work with your designer to create circulation spaces with minimal angles and corners to aid wayfinding in emergency situations. Clear visibility to escape routes allows quick decision making for those exiting in a hurry. In addition, on campus grounds, there may be a preference for students to walk a longer route along busier pathways if it makes them feel safer.

The architectural community seeks new and innovative solutions address the safety concerns hammering our nation’s educational system. Violence in our schools needs to stop and architects can help.

Part III: Planning for Emergencies

The second of a three-part series looking at safety and security on college and university campuses, the third examines strategies for emergencies and how design can help organizations better control the outcomes from adverse events.

School Violence Dominates Headlines: Can Architects Alter the Story?

The headlines today paint a stark reality confronting our education system: violent and nonviolent crime is putting the safety of students and staff at risk. Whether a single facility campus such as an primary school or a multi-facility postsecondary institution spreading across acres, these threats are forcing administrators, security personnel, and even designers to ask tough questions about creating nurturing, educational environments that also project a sense of safety and security.

Colleges and universities present a unique challenge, both in operations and in perception. While data indicates crime beyond sexual assaults is declining on these campuses, studies also show the public perceives security as inadequate. Operating essentially as autonomous mini-cities that are open to the public, the multi-building campuses, open spaces, pedestrian walkways, and skyway systems present challenges for the best police departments, not to mention the smaller campus law enforcement groups charged with monitoring these campuses.

The challenge for these departments is amplified by the academic mission of colleges and universities, placing a high value on creativity and free expression. Where to find that balance in unmitigated academic exploration and collaboration with a feeling of safety and security can be the greatest tension on campus.

While not underestimating the gravity of the threats that face academic institutions, there is a role that design can play in creating spaces and places that complement safety policies and procedures while upholding the mission of the institution. In the first of a three-part series, we begin by understanding what are threats and risks and their relationships to the built environment.

Threat & Risk Analysis

According to Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG), threats are categorized by the following levels:

  • Defined: Specific threats have been received
  • Credible: History of a threat in the area or on a similar facility
  • Potential: History of a threat in the area, but the facility type has not been a target in the past
  • Minimal: No history of a threat in the area

Once the threats and their levels have been identified, the “impact of loss” rating determines whether or not a threat will damage a facility beyond repair, or have minor impacts. Using data from the WBDG, the impact of loss rating scale is as follows:1

  • Devastating: The facility is damaged beyond repair
  • Severe: The facility is partially damaged, and all or some of the facility will remain closed for a period of time
  • Noticeable: The facility is not affected, but a limited number of assets are damaged.
  • Minor: The facility has no significant impact on operations

Vulnerability of a facility is another fact that weighs on the threat and risk analysis.  If a facility is high profile or contains valuable merchandise (think a museum with high value artifacts or art, or a lab for proprietary research), it may attract threats. If the level of defense against that threat is low, then the vulnerability of the facility is very high. On the other hand, if a facility does not encourage threats and the level of defense is adequate, there is a low vulnerability.

Safety Does Not Happen By Accident

As architects strive to have a clear understanding of a client’s security goals, a threat and risk analysis is an essential component to the design process. A threat is defined as a person or thing likely to cause damage or harm. A risk, on the other hand, is exposure to that damage or harm. When the threat comes from a person, it is said to be a criminal or terrorist type of threat. Other threats can be nature-made, like weather, or accidental, such as fires caused by electrical equipment.

With this understanding of threats and risks as well as vulnerability, designers can begin to shape environments to address the safety goals. Dealing with weather risks, designers can create buildings for resiliency to withstand high winds or recover quickly from flooding. Dealing with threats, designers can create environments that improve visibility through more open and lit spaces while also matching those spaces to the mission and branding of the institution – think a perimeter staircase enclosed in glass and lit in a creative fashion to emulate the activity within the building.

Providing necessary safety and security is a complex challenge. Design, alone, can’t provide the complete solution, but neither can operational procedures. The two combined, though, create an atmosphere of safety and security that welcomes the academic activity that educational institutions were designed to provide.

Life – And Design – Is All About Balance

Colleges and universities likely cannot afford to employ every safety precaution known, so it is important to evaluate the risks and the costs of implementing solutions. The threat and risk assessment helps to determine priorities for enhancing safety and security. The ultimate goal is to balance safety and security while maintaining respect for an open campus learning environment.

Balance is the key to success, especially when it comes to safety in a campus environment. Safety strategies combined with appropriate design solutions that are resilient yet flexible will accommodate the open learning environment that is at the core of a college education.

Part II: Design Strategies

Design strategies for safety and security are explained in detail. From active to passive and emergency response strategies, these strategies present a comprehensive approach that can be preventative or responsive in nature.