Making sense of security

August 11, 2010

Even in a world rife with terrorism, preventive measures to deter it can go overboard. Seeking to strike a reasonable relationship among security, freedom of movement and market realities, architectural firm Gensler hosted a late September meeting for members of the Washington, D.C., real estate community.

The session included presentations by Robert Peck, former commissioner of the U.S. General Services Administration's Public Building Service; Robert Craig, director of security consulting for engineer Rolf Jensen Associates; and Jeff Barber, a Gensler design principal who focuses on architectural solutions related to security.

Here is some food for thought that was served up at the meeting:

  • Accept that a building cannot be defended against every potential threat. No building security system can prevent the kind of attacks that occurred on Sept. 11. But steps can be taken to become more aware of potential threats and, accordingly, to protect both people and assets in an uncertain environment.

  • Balance costs with the probability of threats. Obviously, not enough money is available for 100 percent fail-safe security, so make cost-effective decisions.

  • Think about the range of threats, and the fact that they do not stay the same over time. Consider that the government spent $1.2 billion in an attempt to protect its facilities against truck bombs after Oklahoma City, since that was then the greatest perceived threat. However, Sept. 11 changed the spectrum of what is possible.

  • The most realistic day-to-day threat is workplace violence. Is your building a more likely target for workplace violence, a car bomb or something in between?

  • Take a close look at building tenants and their "baggage." Are they foreign-owned? Controversial? Research-driven?

  • Consider the U.S. General Services Administration's standards for security requirements in government buildings. They are available on its Web site, Do you require an "active" security system, or will a "passive" system be as effective? Keep in mind that the manpower required to staff for a 24/7 guard operation can cost as much as $220,000 a year.

  • Architecture is the key to making security convenient, accepted and therefore successful. In both public and private buildings, design solutions can support better security by improving circulation and lines of sight, limiting access, controlling queuing and effectively integrating people and equipment. Design to deter congestion, which is a security threat because people can use confusion to sneak through systems.

The specter of anthrax had not surfaced at the time the Gensler-sponsored session was held. Barber conceded that his firm, as well as others in the industry, was struggling to develop recommendations as soon as possible for dealing with this threat. He wondered if these might include the advent of "million-dollar mail rooms."

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management following the September terrorist attacks indicates that planning for security represents a fertile field for building owners. It found that 35 percent of U.S. companies did not have an emergency plan in place.

Gordon Wright, Editor


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