Essential elements of safe school design

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Lennie Scott-Webber, an Allied AIA member, leads a discussion on school safety at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019.

As school safety conversations make national headlines, architects are solidifying best practices.

What are some of the biggest challenges faced by architects charged with designing safe schools?

First, establishing a framework for how to talk with a client about safety in an educational setting can be tricky for a number of reasons. While gun violence is frequently top-of-mind for many teachers and school administrators, designing for mental and physical health and an optimal learning environment are equally as important. Factors such as limited budgets, as well as differing opinions on open design versus hardening of targets, can pose some of the biggest hurdles for both clients and architects during the design process.

A workshop at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019, “Designing Safer Schools: Expanding the Architect’s Tools and Advocacy”, sought to tackle some of these challenges by improving architects’ skill set when it comes to advocating for safety.

Looking inside and out

Mariana Lavezzo, an associate and K-12 education designer at DLR Group, acknowledges that safety challenges in schools are both programmatic and architectural. She advocates for a “learning studio” alternative to traditional classrooms, where students face each other instead of the “front” of the room. Learning studios can be clustered together which can allow for more effective supervision.

“In older schools—the traditional model where all the classrooms are the same size and there’s a double-loaded corridor—they don’t have that transparency, and that’s actually more dangerous,” she says. “A staff can more easily supervise if they have a wide line of sight.”

Lavezzo says she has fielded concerns from clients about the transparency and openness of learning studios as they relate to active shooters. The reason why she believes in openness, however, relates just as much to CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) principles as it does to the benefits that students receive from such an environment.

“It’s the same planning principles as outside,” she says. “If you’re staff and you’re supervising a bunch of kids playing outside, you want this wide angle of supervision. Same thing for the interior. So if you could see everything that’s going on standing in this one spot, you could see trouble brewing easier than if all these walls were solid and you can’t see what’s going on.” Mitigating hidden areas also has the advantage of creating fewer spaces for bullying to occur.

Having tough conversations, like any other skill utilized by architects, takes some practice.

“We’re trying to help architects be very comfortable with having these difficult conversations with their clients, and working through it with them,” she says.

A holistic approach

One of the first things that is important to establish with clients is that safety isn’t just one thing—it’s about implementing a variety of methods and strategies. Any school safety conversation has to address ways in which to foster peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher connection. Greater social connectivity has proven mental health benefits, and a greater emphasis on holistic health may prevent violence in the first place.

Lennie Scott-Webber, an Allied AIA member and owner and principal at INSYNC: Education Research + Design, was a professor at Virginia Tech when the campus shooting occurred in 2007. The shooter was a student at the school.  

“It’s not the outside coming in, it’s the inside erupting,” she says of the form that threats to student safety frequently take. “We really need to think about this holistically.”

The design of a school can impact students’ frame of mind a great deal. Visual signifiers of potential threats—such as high fences, metal detectors, bulletproof glass and other obvious security measures—can activate fight-or-flight responses, and frequently have a negative effect on an overall feeling of safety. Security baked in from the beginning can help to prevent these stressors. Michael Pinto, AIA, cites the redesign of Sandy Hook Elementary School as one such example of best practices. Since reopening in 2016, the school has become a national model for incorporating security features that aren’t noticeable unless you’re looking for them, such as a central entrance that everyone must exit and enter through during school hours.

“That’s kind of an exemplary project for building in safety that still allows for 21st century education practices, as well,” he says.

Technology, such as security cameras and metal detectors, is often sold as an (expensive) cure-all for school safety concerns, but Mike Niola, an associate principal at Vantage Technology Consulting Group, points out that technology can’t be a band-aid applied to the physical environment. Solutions like a layered security approach must be present for any kind of supplemental technology to be successful, and security must be built into the culture of the school—despite what members of the multi-million-dollar school security industry might say. Depending on what they’ve heard, client expectations about incorporating technology might differ from what’s actually effective.

“There must be a multi-pronged, multi-faceted approach—there can’t just be one solution,” he says.

What architects need to be successful

There’s no question that architects need outside support and resources in order to become better advocates for safe school design. Receiving input from students, parents and teachers can be hugely beneficial, in addition to any conversations that architects may have with school administrators.

One source of frustration for many architects is that evidence-based design as it relates to school safety is largely still emerging–and without data, it’s sometimes tough to back up design choices to decision-makers. However, the framework as it exists now prioritizes environmental design, space for human connection, and technology to create effective school safety solutions.

“There’s a different way to use all these things together to make a safe environment that doesn’t feel institutional,” Lavezzo says.

School safety is a key issue AIA is advocating for in 2019. Architects are working hard to secure more public funding and informational resources for school officials to design safer schools. Learn more and take action.

Katherine Flynn is a writer/editor at AIA focusing on industry trends and emerging ideas.

Image credits

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Oscar & Associates

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