Creating Safe And Nurturing Schools With Design

It’s essential to address safety in our schools from a more holistic standpoint.

Sandy Hook School, Newtown, CT, has a dedicated bus loop that serves as a barrier between the school and the public. Pedestrian access over a rain garden is limited to three footbridges, making it easier to detect a stranger’s approach. Photo: Robert Benson, courtesy Svigals + Partners

By Jay Brotman, AIA, Svigals + Partners

When one hears the phrase “safe schools,” it evokes images of closed-circuit video, automatic locking mechanisms, and police presence, but safety is better addressed from a more holistic standpoint. It’s important to remember that children spend between six and eight hours a day in their schools. Designs focused on technological and architectural safety features (walls, alarms, cameras, locks) can result in a prison-like atmosphere that will have a negative impact on academic achievement and emotional well-being.

Our approach to school safety follows four basic guidelines: deter, detect, delay, and defend. The general principle is to prevent unwanted intrusion onto school grounds in the first place and, failing that, make it difficult for an intruder to reach vulnerable occupants. A holistic design method incorporates this strategic principle into every aspect of a new academic facility. Done properly, the most potent aspects of the design for safety and security are essentially invisible, woven seamlessly into a nurturing, inspiring learning environment.

Long before introducing technological solutions such as hardened walls or ballistic glass, stakeholders need to first consider campus planning, including siting, traffic flow, layout, landscaping, and programming. Setting a school building behind an identifiable property demarcation and with clear sightlines to approaching visitors makes unwanted intrusion more noticeable and far less likely. Landscaping can also slow an intruder’s progress and make them easier to detect from inside the building. Locating classrooms away from front entrances provides yet another critical buffer. Note that none of these security measures intrude upon the teaching and learning taking place within the facility.

Our design for the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT, combines strategies such as these in combination with selectively hardened architecture, rigorous access control, and monitoring systems to create a safe and secure facility. A dedicated bus loop wraps around the parking lot and passes in front of the building, serving as a barrier between the school and the public. A rain garden, with a sunken rock river extending across the entire front of the school, serves as a beautiful natural buffer and a living tool for teaching about nature and the local ecology. Pedestrian access over the rain garden is limited to three footbridges, making it easier for those inside to detect a stranger’s approach.

To ensure safety, the project team should consider the best locations for investing in anti-impact and ballistic-rated glazing, typically at entry areas and at ground-floor level. Photo: Carl Vernlund, courtesy Svigals + Partners

These elements are highly effective, but do not appear to the eye to be elements of a security strategy. Most students are unaware of their purpose, and that’s precisely the goal. Visitors to the school are far more likely to notice and remember the abundant natural daylight, the colorful interior, and the integrated artwork that contribute to a positive and joyful atmosphere for students and teachers.

Architects, contractors, and trades who work closely with the communities these schools serve can help protect students without creating an impression of ever-present danger. The design should strengthen the connection between the students and their community, contributing to the feeling of nurturing and safety. Windows that provide views of outdoors and allow daylight to penetrate the interior are a major contributor to this sense of connection. To ensure safety, the project team should consider the best locations for investing in anti-impact and ballistic-rated glazing, typically at entry areas and at the ground-floor level.

Our firm’s core principles include the belief that architects have a responsibility to help clients achieve the most from their limited resources. We are proud to have the ongoing opportunity to work with the American Institute of Architects to bring testimony before U.S. legislators and White House cabinet members. The goal of these efforts is to produce meaningful legislation to address safety in our schools nationwide.

Jay Brotman, AIA, is managing partner at Svigals + Partners, New Haven, CT. Since joining the firm in 1987, he has designed and managed several award-winning K-12 projects including the Columbus Family Academy in New Haven, the new Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT, and the Engineering and Science Univ. Magnet School in West Haven, CT.

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