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Adapting learning spaces for a culture of safety

Architects rethink school designs for education, protection

June 13, 2018

Editor's note: This is part of a series investigating gun violence from many angles.

It used to be that the idea of stepping up school security meant the hiring of a school resource officer or simply educating the school population on facility entrances and exits in cases of emergency.

Enter the age of lockdowns, active shooter trainings — and school redesign.

As educators and legislators wrestle with ideas on how to protect students from intruders in built environments, the increased frequency of school shootings is also drawing architects and designers into the conversation about creating safe spaces for learning.

For some insight on the discussions taking place on the future of school design in the changing cultural climate, ASU Now turned to Philip Horton, assistant director and head of architecture at Arizona State University's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, with a few questions.

Question: Educational facilities are exposed to an increasing amount of complex issues related to school safety. Is there anything in the design of a facility that can prevent some of the issues we are seeing, especially with the increased frequency of school shootings across the nation?

Answer: Certainly, the issues related to school safety are complex. We are all hyper-aware of the sad and frightening numbers of school shootings, but there are also many other security issues including bullying and physical altercations between students in schools, concerns about student pedestrians mixing with car and bus traffic on school grounds, vandalism of school property, and much more. The built environment (architecture, landscape architecture, planning) of schools can play a significant role in school safety, but other systems such as social and administrative are also key. In the best-case scenarios, the built environment is integrative with the school's sociocultural and administrative systems.

The International CPTED Association (ICA) is one research-based organization that seeks to advance knowledge about how best to design, build and maintain safe and secure environments for schools and the communities beyond. CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) is an evolving concept that dates back to the 1960s, with roots that are often traced back to the observation and ideas of critical urban theorists like Jane Jacobs.

Q: Is it possible to design schools for safety and maintain an open and welcoming learning environment at the same time?

Philip Horton

A: No school design can eliminate all security risks, but yes, there are ways to plan and design schools to be more safe while maintaining an open and welcoming environment. Studies have shown that ample daylight is important for the educational performance of students, but it is also important for security. Dark recesses within schools are a security risk for all kinds of unwanted activities. Wide, straight, well-lit corridors are desired within schools, so that you can "read" the space very clearly. This allows students to find their classrooms easily, and it also allows staff to monitor students and others easily as well.

In large schools different organizational strategies such as courtyards, radial plans and pods have different advantages as they relate to the social mission, administrative structure and surrounding community of the school. This is where things can become very complex, and this is why the process for planning and designing a school is so important. Hiring a licensed architecture practice that has good experience with designing schools, and engaging faculty, staff, security consultants and even the local police and fire departments in the design process from beginning to end can be critical.

Q: Following the May 18 school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, the lieutenant governor of that state made headlines for asserting that too many entrances and exits may have compromised safety for students and that the gunman could have been stopped had there been one single entrance possibly for every student. Is there any merit to this assertion? Is this a plausible and/or effective way to approach school safety in the design process?

A: Limiting the entrances to schools is a common safety practice in the contemporary design of schools. There is commonly a separate side or rear entrance for teachers and staff that can only be entered from staff parking via a card-reader access door. You do also have to locate a distributed number of egress doors throughout a school to meet life-safety requirements in the event that a school has to be quickly evacuated from fire and smoke, for example. Keeping these ancillary doors secured can be critical. They might have alarms that sound if they are propped open and cameras that monitor the comings and goings through the doors.

One large, single point-of-entry — often with multiple doors closely grouped together to meet life-safety requirements — for all students is a common, contemporary practice in school design. Commonly located within the main entry is a secured vestibule, administrated by a staff within an adjacent, secured reception area, sometimes behind security glass or a roll-up/lockable counter door. Parents can often enter the secured vestibule with their child, a forgotten backpack or parental forms, but they can often go no further. From this point, children are often signed in, and when the staff is ready the children can be buzzed in to open the otherwise-locked doors that proceed from the vestibule into the actual school. Children may have to successfully pass through a metal detector before they will be buzzed in.

Many of these most-secure design practices have only been implemented within the last 15 years of school design. The public school that I went to in the Midwest decades ago did not have anywhere near this degree of security. Also, many schools do not have the fiscal resources, the time or the space to readily accommodate Renovations that include demolition and/or additions can take months to complete.these kinds of security features. 

Q: What types of structures, features and installations might be implemented in the design of a school campus to address safety concerns?

A: These are commonly separated into passive or intuitive design versus active security systems. Active systems include: cameras, alarm systems, key-card access control, motion-detection systems, and other technologies that are constantly evolving. These technologies are often easy to retrofit into older buildings, but they can be expensive.

On the passive/intuitive side, lighting — both daylighting and good artificial lighting — are important throughout a campus from the street to the building and throughout the interior of a school. The design of landscaping is also important. Fences and gates can secure outdoor spaces, but they should be very open so one can see through them. Neighborhoods and passing police or security should be able to see into and across school grounds from the perimeter of a school site. Tall shade trees and low shrubs can be good, but tall shrubs, green-screens and vine walls that can hide an intruder are not desirable. Transparency and view corridors through the common spaces of schools are also useful for monitoring many spaces from key administrative/security control points day and night. But as details from recent school shooting events have emerged, we have also seen that opaque and lockable doors to classrooms can provide shelter for teachers and students trying to escape intruders.

Q: Is there an example of a currently existing structure that you think is not only safe but aesthetically pleasing — something that can be modeled for school retrofitting or redesign?

A: This is a tricky question to answer because what works for one school in one city might not be a good solution for another school in another city with a different culture, climate or community context. Every year the American Institute of Architects (AIA) gives out Education Facilities Awards for what the expert jury deems to be the best new schools, additions and major renovations in schools for that year (preschool through higher education). But you could also look back through history at great schoolsThe work of Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger is counted among the best in school designs. for great principles of school design.

This year, Arlington Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington, designed by Mahlum Architects won an AIA award for a great design. A couple of years ago Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., by Studio Twenty Seven Architecture won an AIA award. Henderson-Hopkins School in Baltimore, Maryland, by Rogers Partners won an AIA award for some really great design features. And one after-school facility on the South Side of Chicago, the Gary Comer Youth Center by John Ronan Architects, is a particularly noteworthy project.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

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