Building Safer Schools After Sandy Hook: An Architect’s View

December 16th, 2014 by Trey Barrineau

Sunday marked the second anniversary of the horrific and tragic mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 young children and six adult staff members were shot to death by a mentally disturbed young man.

The shock of that unimaginable act ignited an intense national discussion about gun safety and mental health, but it’s also forced educators and builders to re-evaluate all aspects of school safety—including architectural design and the security features of doors and windows.

Architect Brian P. Whitmore, vice president of design at BCA Architects, works on K-12 classroom modernizations for school districts in California.

“By their very nature, schools should be places of safety and security, so that students may be able to focus on their learning without the distraction of the outside world,” Whitmore told USGNN.com™. “Our future generations depend on us designing schools that not only challenge their minds, but keep them safe. Unfortunately, our society is targeting educational facilities for acts of violence, whether that is for media attention, sensationalizing the act, or pure evil. It’s certainly heightened our awareness and the ability to design for the worst-case scenarios.”

To that end, Whitmore has come up with five things he says the public must consider when designing or modernizing schools. Two are of particular interest to the fenestration industry.
For example, Whitmore urges schools to install door and window hardware that can be locked down. “It’s important that occupants in a building have the ability to escape,” he says. “On the other hand, the ability to protect occupants inside a building may also be a strategy for safety. Providing door and window hardware that has the ability to remain open, or be automatically or manually locked from the inside, is of particular importance when a lock-down scenario occurs.”

In that same vein, Whitmore says schools should consider using bullet-resistant glass. “We are currently considering the use of bullet-resistant glazing in the entry lobby of a project we are designing for Bayshore Elementary School District in Daly City, Calif.,” he says. “We want to maintain visibility to the public right of way, as well as a sense of welcoming as you approach the school, but at the same time provide safety for the students that use that lobby on a day-to-day basis for circulation.” Whitmore also says BCA Architects is considering an electronically keyed entry for the Daly City project, “so that the administration may have control over who enters the building from the primary entrance.”

A building design with an “inward focus” is important, too. “Access to natural light is critical to the design of educational, corporate and residential spaces, but can also weaken the line of defense,” Whitmore says. “Consider the placement of glazing facing inward, or toward a safe environment. If glazing must be placed adjacent to the exterior or public way, consider locating it above reach, or with enough strength and the ability to be obscured in case of an unsafe situation.”

Whitmore’s other advice: Involve the entire community in discussions about school design, place administrative offices adjacent to the primary entrance, and consider the location of security systems.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, USGlass magazine dedicated its May 2013 issue to school safety. You can read the entire issue here.

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