Sign In, Renew, Sign Up

Search AIA

Search AIA Go

Architect's Knowledge ResourceDocuments

Page Tools

Reed Insight and Community


Creating Safe and Secure Civic Buildings: The Post-September 11 Challenge

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

As the United States faces continued terrorist threats, finding the balance between well-designed, secure civic facilities and maintaining openness in a democratic society remains a major challenge for public- and private-sector building owners. Transparent security, invisible to the public eye, can advance design excellence and increase public safety.

Public officials, several years after September 11, 2001, continue to warn of the possibility that major U.S. cities may be attacked again by terrorists. Although many Americans have become cynical about these announcements, those in the intelligence community who monitor global terrorist activities at home and abroad advocate a proactive, ongoing approach to homeland security, even without evidence of specific threats. Nevertheless, building owners, architects, and engineers cannot afford to ignore what might be a crucial warning for increasing public safety. The consequences, and potential liability, of ignoring these warnings are far too great for any responsible design professional.

Terrorism, natural disasters, and global warming trends have prompted architects, engineers, and building industry leaders to redefine design criteria for civic buildings. From government facilities and transit hubs to high rises and historic landmarks, architects must understand risks and threats in the post-September 11 world. Building security is a prime concern for those charged with protecting the public’s health and safety.

In a global society, events in one part of the world can rapidly affect the lives of people in other countries. The July 2007 attempted vehicle bombings in London and at the Glasgow, Scotland airport immediately put major U.S. and global airports on high alert, in case similar attacks were planned.

In a July 15, 2007, interview, New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen told the New York Daily News, “They (Al Qaeda) want to come here, and whatever their capabilities, they absolutely are focused on returning to New York City. We assume on any given day that someone is planning to do something in New York City. Our posture is based on that fundamental assumption.”

Infrastructure Protection

Former White House counterterrorism advisor Richard A. Clarke, in a May 2007 interview with, observed, “Government buildings are likely to be at risk because of their role. Due to the large numbers of people moving through them, train stations, sports facilities, and other similar public venues are also at risk. Building technology should minimize unnecessary secondary casualties due to architectural or engineering decisions. Avoid the use of glass that, when shattered, might kill more people than a bomb. Laminated glass, blast windows, and other glazing can minimize secondary casualties.”

Protecting critical infrastructure remains an important issue. According to Clarke, who served as infrastructure protection chair at the White House, “Infrastructure is defined as buildings or facilities, such as bridges, tunnels, and communications facilities that large numbers of people utilize and depend on; if such an entity were destroyed, it would inconvenience large numbers of people or create mass casualties.”

Buildings that are planned and designed today may some day save the lives of those seeking to escape a building in danger of imminent collapse or destruction. Designing for security should enable building occupants to evacuate quickly during emergencies and allow first responders, including firefighters and law enforcement personnel, to rescue others and survive.

The World Trade Center (WTC) was designed in the mid-1960s; construction was completed in 1973, when technology and codes were less advanced than in 2001. When the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, some 40 years later, the WTC’s design and materials significantly contributed to the inability of many occupants and first responders to evacuate safely.

Security and Openness

Transparent security, invisible to the public eye, can blend seamlessly into sites, achieve design excellence, and promote good urban design, while increasing public safety. Perimeter security is the first line of defense for a building. Landscaped areas, water design elements, street furniture, and large-scale sculpture can also serve as deterrents to vehicle bombs, considered major threats to urban areas.

At the federal level, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has developed an integrated approach to security design, evolving from a one-dimensional, security-driven concept during the 1990s to a more sophisticated and inclusive approach of sustainability, landscape design, and public art.

In federal office buildings and courthouses, for example, some of the nation’s leading architects and their firms, including Thom Mayne, FAIA; Richard Meier, FAIA; and Antoine Predock, FAIA, have designed courthouses with security countermeasures that must accommodate the daily life of federal and civic buildings and the dignity they represent within the urban landscape. Through their work with GSA’s Design Excellence program, initiated by Edward A. Feiner, FAIA, former GSA chief architect, many of America’s most talented architects have demonstrated that design excellence and stringent federal security requirements are compatible.

GSA has implemented many sustainability benchmarks and metrics for measuring energy efficiency. Collectively the next generation of federal buildings reflects enhanced security and sustainability levels that serve as best-practice models for public- and private-sector owners and architects to study and apply to other projects.

The AIA New York State Convention ( program, Defining the New Urban Challenge: Creating Secure Civic Buildings (Thursday, October 4, 2007, 2:30–4 p.m.), will address security design solutions facing a global society in the post-September 11 era, using national and New York case studies. Among the issues to be covered are creating innovative security design solutions to advance design excellence, achieving transparent security, evaluating vulnerabilities, and integrating design elements to reflect civic engagement at public buildings.

Nationally prominent architects and present and past GSA leaders, including Les Shepherd, AIA, GSA’s chief architect in Washington, D.C., will illustrate recent federal buildings that blend security and design excellence, and Edward A. Feiner, FAIA, director of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Washington, D.C., office, will describe the philosophy of security at public properties. Moderator Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, will provide an overview of security planning issues.


Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, principal of Barbara Nadel Architect in New York City, specializes in planning and design of justice, health, and secure environments. She is the author of Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

Keywords: Design, Disaster design response, Transparent security, Terrorism, Natural disasters, Homeland security, Airports, Train stations, Sports facilities, Critical infrastructure, Laminated glass, Blast windows, World Trade Center, Perimeter security, Federal office buildings, Courthouses


Footer Navigation

Copyright & Privacy

  • © The American Institute of Architects
  • Privacy