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Securing the future

Security gets top priority in new facilities

September 01, 2001 |

From the incorporation of closed-circuit TV to the installation of access-control systems, technology has no doubt improved building security in recent years. However, if a facility can be designed inherently safer, then why not? In the wake of tragedies like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine High School shootings, architects are being asked to design increasingly secure facilities.

After the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the General Services Administration (GSA) instituted security requirements for government facilities, which it classified according to risk.

The new $40 million, 185,000-sq.-ft. Oklahoma City federal building now under construction falls into GSA Security Level IV, which requires buildings to be set back at least 20 feet from the street, blast-resistant lobbies and security stations separate from working areas. The new building will feature laminated window glass, bollards along its perimeter and is set back 50 feet from the right of way.

"Now all [government] buildings are designed to resist progressive collapse," says Carol Ross Barney of Chicago-based Ross Barney + Jankowski Architects, principal designer of the Oklahoma City building. "GSA is not specifying so many pounds of TNT [a building must be able to resist], but they're requiring designers to design a building frame that will not collapse if one of the major structural members is removed."

According to Ross Barney, the Murrah Federal Building collapsed after only one column was destroyed. "The building then failed from two causes," she says, "first, from the uplift of the explosion, because we don't design buildings to be lifted up, and then, as it collapsed, it pulled itself down."

Ross Barney and other designers note that the greatest struggle in designing a safe building is trying to create an open environment as well.

"The biggest challenge for us was and still is to make this building look open," says Ross Barney. "It would be a shame if it was totally blast-proof and absolutely secure, uninviting and not representative of our open government. That's been our whole balancing act. How do you create a [safe] building that says this is a building for the people, and doesn't look like a bunker?"

The new face of Columbine

The ABCs of building security apply to educational facilities as well, as was evident in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in which 700 rounds of ammunition, fired by two assailants, killed 12 students and one teacher and wounded 23 others.

While an office or government building is likely to be attacked from the outside, schools generally face a security obstacle from within.

"It's been determined and the statistics show that very few times have you ever had a threat from outside on a school attack," says Jack Swanzy, director of facilities planning and design for Jefferson County (Colo.) Public Schools, the district that includes Columbine.

In May, Columbine High School's new 14,300-sq.-ft. library was completed after just eight months of construction. Volunteers from Denver-based Turner Construction, Denver-based architect Davis Partnership and the Colorado Associated General Contractors joined Swanzy's team to create the freestanding library attached to the school's west side.

The new library was designed with more open space, increased light and large windows looking onto the Rocky Mountains. With multiple supervision stations, where staff members can monitor the entire room, Swanzy feels a higher level of security has been created.

According to Swanzy, an average high school library has 20,000 to 30,000 volumes. This created an additional challenge for Columbine — how would they design the bookshelves? The new, free-standing stacks were kept only 48 inches high, allowing students and security personnel to see over the shelves.

At each of the school's entrances, which have been reduced from 33 to only five, and placed at high-traffic locations, additional security cameras were installed. They monitor activity around the clock in and out of the building, notifying the district office of all movement. Access cards are required at all times for coaches, teachers, administrators and support staff to enter the building.

However, Swanzy says designers must not rely on technology alone to create a safe atmosphere. "Camera systems don't prevent anything," he says. "All they do is record a history of action. You can put security guards and metal detectors in the buildings, but if somebody is planning an attack, it's not going to prevent anything."

Swanzy insists that school security shouldn't be based on design alone, but must include more adult supervision and programs aimed at teaching students safety tactics. "There isn't any design you put forth that I couldn't give you a scenario that would violate your design within about one minute and a half," he concludes.

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