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Designing for Security

A modern-day search for the intersection of safety and beauty.

By Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson for AIA Architect

In the 18th century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a building meant to eradicate bad behavior. The design concept—which Bentham said could be used for everything from schools and hospitals to housing and prisons—was a circular structure with an observation tower at its core. Occupants of those buildings would know that a centralized authority watched them and would act appropriately. This infamous Panopticon has been debated ever since, with critics calling it a cruel marriage of social engineering and architecture, one that augured the coming era of CCTV and constant public monitoring.

Today, society continues to debate the role that architecture should play when it comes to security. There’s an abundance of abysmal examples: buildings buttressed by jersey walls, metal spikes, barbed wire, bars, and berms or surrounded by a phalanx of security; defensive architecture designed to function like a fortress or retrofitted with tacked-on deterrents. How, then, should architects design safe spaces that are also beautiful and humane?

It’s a question that’s been taken up recently by some of the most targeted of building types, including U.S. embassies. “Embassies and consulates must exemplify the best of American architecture, environmental stewardship, and innovation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2013 when discussing the U.S. State Department’s new Design Excellence initiative. Architects are being mandated to move beyond the bunker and create buildings abroad that are capable of keeping people inspired as well as safe.

Back home in America, we are—according to the numbers—safer than ever. Crime statistics from the FBI show that violent and quality-of-life crimes have diminished over the decades. Yet, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Not after people with guns breached offices and movie theaters, churches and elementary schools. Security is as much about perception as it is about reality, and cultural anxiety often influences building design.

Lynda Buel, the owner and CEO of SRMC, a security consultation firm based in Columbus, Ohio, has a background in criminology and criminal justice, as well as 30 years of professional security management experience, including working with AEC firms. She says it’s not just clients of high-risk structures—courthouses, embassies, and federal buildings—who are taking security seriously these days; it’s also universities, hospitals, schools, and residential and office buildings. “Organizations are increasingly aware of the need for security measures,” Buel says. “But the other thing I hear from our clients is that they want the feel of an open, welcoming environment. They want a balance.”

Identifying Vulnerabilities

Patrick Gilbert, AIA, a senior architect with Gresham, Smith and Partners (GS&P), explains that achieving this balance comes from building in, rather than bolting on, security measures. “Security is not an add-on; rather it’s thinking holistically about a building site or concept,” he says.

Gilbert specializes in corporate and urban design, and always interviews clients about security needs, both real and perceived. “We ask, ‘What are your hot buttons, your vulnerabilities? What are the things that concern you?’ Sometimes it’s about providing a comfortable and safe place for employees; other times it’s about securing critical data,” Gilbert says.

When it comes to the average urban campus or a corporate office building, thoughtful integration and environmental design should support safety. Gilbert points to the concepts of the International Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Association (CPTED), which encourage strategies in landscape and architectural design to deter crime. A clearly demarcated and well-lit path from the parking garage to the entrance, for example, coupled with one main entry to a building versus multiple entries, helps bolster a building’s perimeter security.

“Our clients think about security on a more prevalent basis than 15 years ago,” Gilbert says. “We’re sometimes surprised by how many bring it up, especially in office buildings, where it’s less about keeping people out than it is about creating an environment where employees feel safe.”

Ensuring Reassurance

That sense of security is paramount. “There’s how safe you are and there’s how safe you feel—and they are both important,” says Joseph Collins, FAIA, a partner at Portland, Ore.’s ZGF Architects.

Collins works with universities, from Stanford to Johns Hopkins, where it’s often about mitigating fear through built environment interventions such as good illumination, sight lines, and wayfinding.

“There is a heightened awareness of security issues these days, but I would also say that our job as architects has never changed. It’s to address these important issues and still create delightful experiences that don’t feel overbearing,” Collins says. “When you’re in college, you want to feel that freedom of being in college. It’s our job to balance security concerns and help make them fade into the background.” (Buel notes that more of her university clients are inviting architecture firms in at the early planning stages of development because “they recognize how good design can enhance safety.”)

This same need for balance extends to office and residential environments. Sometimes security interventions—cameras, guards, metal detectors—are made visible in areas like the lobby, to establish that those measures are in place, but they become more discreet on the interior. “Clients want to protect what they need to protect, but they don’t always want it out in front,” says Sue Kerns, principal and director of interiors at ZGF.

The rise of tech businesses with hackworthy product development, and of university-based labs conducting sensitive research, is also influencing architecture. “We have tech clients worrying about corporate espionage,” Kerns says. “A software client of ours has different levels of badging for different security access, so we had to be careful how we designed the circulation.”

GS&P has clients who conduct secretive projects that require what’s known as “sensitive compartmented information facilities.” Think of it as a kind of high-tech moat to keep people, and hackers, out.

“It’s an office-within-an-office for working on sensitive projects, and we see this with our clients who have connections to the federal government,” Gilbert says. “We’ll build a suite within an office that has foil-lined walls and other methods to keep intellectual and electronic data from being compromised. These spaces are very quiet, so you don’t even realize the office exists.”

Thinking 10 Years Ahead

Keeping security discreet is something more architects and landscape architects should make a priority, according to James Timberlake, FAIA, founding partner of KieranTimberlake. “In general, architects need to challenge the theory that overt visual deterrents, which are the most aggressive features in the landscape, are the answer,” Timberlake says. “If it’s a K–8 school, and you’ve put a metal detector at the front door, what does that say? Security should be more integrated, more discreet, and architects should first try to think of passive ways to incorporate security requirements.”

KieranTimberlake’s design for the Embassy of the United States, London, which is now under construction in the Nine Elms district of the English capital city, incorporates natural elements as security. Situated in the center of a nearly 5-acre site, the embassy grounds will include curving walkways, a large pond, low garden walls, fixed benches, and varying elevations in the topography to achieve security measures that don’t feel obtrusive. “We chose to use the elements of architecture and landscape as a discreet way of incorporating the requirements that the State Department desired,” Timberlake says.

Security is also an ongoing conversation. “You have to keep revisiting it,” Timberlake says. “Step one is asking the right questions, step two is setting the right goals for a project, and step three is reconfirming those goals throughout. It’s not enough to ask those questions once. We’ve asked the State Department, ‘Has anything changed in the 20 months since this project started?’ Well, yes, the cameras have gotten better. So you make adjustments.”

As technology swiftly changes, and client needs do as well, building adaptable spaces becomes important. “The world evolves, so does security,” Buel says. “We have a saying: ‘You must be fast, fluid, and flexible.’ Architects need to think about 10 years down the road. Ask a client what the plans for the space might be in a decade, and what types of security infrastructure should be in place to support it. Put in the fiber cables and the pipes now. And make sure IT is a part of the conversation.”

In fact, bring everyone to the table. “In the past, architectural firms often designed in a bubble,” Buel says. “They would meet with the higher-ups within the organization, but now they are engaging stakeholders at all levels of the organization—the people who live, work, and play in those environments.”

While Bentham may have designed a means for deterring aberrant behavior with his Panopticon, he forgot the importance of human experience. When it comes to security, “inviting everyone to the table makes all the difference,” Buel says.

This article was originally published by Architect magazine on April 27, 2016.