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Blueprint for Safer Buildings

​THE KEY TO PROTECTION for government facilities—and this concept can apply to nongovernment facilities as well—is a comprehensive site design that views the new building, its campus, and the surrounding neighborhood as an integrated space. This takes teamwork and proper planning.

Vital to the entire process is the collaborative participation of a multidisciplinary team wherein each member supports the long-term goals of the project. This team should be headed by project and property managers who will be responsible throughout the entire life cycle of the design and building process.

The team should include the chosen site designers and planners, engineers, historic preservationists, and other applicable specialists; and members of a building security committee representing the tenant agency. It should also include community stakeholders such as city planners, first responders, public works and business district representatives, and neighboring property owners. Additionally, security professionals such as design consultants, onsite contractors, and representatives from the U.S. Marshals Service and Federal Protective Service should be part of the team.

The design must incorporate a strategic approach to reducing risk that identifies issues and defines priorities using the zone system. The result should be an unobtrusive design that remains flexible to changing levels of threat.

Defining priorities. The strategic approach to risk includes an assessment of risk that identifies which threats and vulnerabilities are applicable or unique to the property. These risks and vulnerabilities are then prioritized and potential countermeasures explored.

Following these steps may be all in a day’s work for security professionals, but when the team includes those not trained in risk assessment, opportunities for miscommunication can arise, especially when considering potential acts of terrorism. It should be stressed to nonsecurity team members that all risk can never be eliminated and that security measures must be selected based on acute risks in light of available resources.

The design and security programs must be “appropriate to the site and the neighborhood,” as explained in the Site Security Design Guide from the General Services Administration (GSA). That means using features that can blend with the environment and serve security as well. For example, one site used planted drainage channels known as bioswales as part of a pocket park to both reduce storm water runoff and prevent vehicle approach. This type of security technique can result in added value in the form of increased customer satisfaction, a heightened sense of user ownership, and a more unified streetscape.

Zones. The concept of zones can act as the framework for addressing individual security elements. Zones can help the design team better understand context and how security elements and amenities in one area contribute to the performance of elements in the others. This broader view can guide decision makers through a strategic, comprehensive, collaborative, and long-term-focused design process.

Site security zones follow the physical organization of a site from the outside to the inside. Zone one is the neighborhood; zone two is the standoff perimeter; zone three is site access and parking; zone four is the site; zone five is the building envelope; and zone six is the internal management and building operations.

Each zone offers the design team opportunities to increase site security and enhance site appearance and function. In the first zone, the team considers the site’s context within its neighborhood. For successive zones, the team explores opportunities to protect the site by making adjustments to its perimeter, circulation, and use, and concludes by recommending changes in space planning or security operations, to minimize identified vulnerabilities.

For example, at one federal property, vector analysis provided useful information about how street design could work in concert with physical barriers to prevent vehicles of a certain size and speed from reaching a site. This allowed the design team to be more flexible when selecting perimeter security measures, allowing them to select less robust countermeasures that would not detract from the pleasant nature of the site.

At another location, perimeter security was enhanced by the closure of a public street located between an existing courthouse and a new federal lease construction project. Working with the city, the project team redeveloped the street into a public plaza. Both parties now are working together to manage programmed activities in the space, providing amenities to federal users and an adjacent retail district.  Unobtrusive design. “Successful site design is invisible,” says Bob Schwartz, a courthouse designer at the firm HOK in St. Louis. “It reinforces the facility concept without giving the appearance of a fortress.”

Schwartz was on the design team of the Alfred A. Arraj Courthouse in Denver, which today serves as a model for designs that balance openness, security, and environmental sustainability.

Schwartz and the design team worked collaboratively with the GSA, courts, and construction managers to review each security item. They looked at alternative design possibilities for each item and searched for synergies in all aspects of the project to provide the best solution.

The building showcases innovative sustainable strategies, such as the use of photovoltaic cells, while also being one of the first U.S. courthouses to meet GSA Security Design Criteria standards that were developed as a response to events such as the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

The form and orientation of the Arraj courthouse were modified to provide a solution that addressed aesthetics, sustainability, and security. For example, one change reduced the building footprint to meet the increased stand-off distance requirement. The extra space was turned into an attractive plaza, which improved the aesthetics. At the same time, by having the plaza face south and east, the morning sun can help melt the snow in the winter.

Helping the Locals
Schwartz applauded the GSA’s decision to formalize the process for site security design, which it did in 2007 when it issued its Site Security Design Guide.

The GSA is now making the design guide available to a wider audience, including state and local governments, which often lack local site security criteria.

That’s welcome news to professionals like Luis Pitarque of HDR and Jim Beight of PSA-Dewberry, who work on a broad range of public safety and court design projects, many that include security measures intended to mitigate assaults on the facilities. They say that when they were designing a police station for the city of Alexandria, Virginia, there were no local criteria to adhere to. The duo looked to national security standards to build into the project.

As lead design architect on the project, Beight worked to integrate security measures in a manner that enhanced and complemented the architecture and aesthetics of the building rather than detracting from it.

Pitarque and Beight discussed with the client the building setbacks and site elements, as well as the facility design features that would be required if the building were to meet a federal standard. The biggest battle, however, was getting the stakeholders and citizens to agree that the cost of the additional design effort was a necessary expense.

In the case of this facility, the standoff requirement was 82 feet; it was integrated into the design by creating a landscaped public plaza. Public parking was held back the same distance and the plaza was designed so that it led to the parking entry. A variety of force-protection measures were integrated into the landscape and plaza to provide protection from vehicular assault. They included raised planters integrated into the plaza and a fenced ‘cable’ system that is disguised by plantings in the landscaped areas.

Access to back-of-the-house areas was reserved for use by the police and was controlled by a decorative wrought iron fence, and shielded by the parking deck. The deck was located along the rear property line and provides a significant buffer for the exterior police operations.

The early identification and integration of security requirements into the design of the police station were key to the project’s success. Also the flexible and creative approach of the client to these issues was a tremendous help. Beight says that architects need to lead the effort to incorporate security measures as an integral component of the architecture. Absent this, the measures become add-ons that give the impression of inaccessibility to the public and result in civic structures that are more known for their fortress-like presence than engagement of the community which they serve.

This starts with an understanding of the requirements at the outset of the project. Beight says he would like to see a movement to educate the building design industry on the new GSA requirements as guidelines “that are not optional and are of the utmost importance.” That outreach would be the first step toward ensuring that architects address these concerns adequately in the design process.

Beight suggests that implementation of these measures can result in positive contributions to the design, such as opportunities for more landscaped areas and plazas to support the function of the building, both of which support sustainability in the built environment.

While the cost of security features is always an issue, architects can also be educated about how those costs can be reduced by designing security in from the beginning; the later in the process that these needs are addressed, the more likely the costs will be higher.

The Nation’s Capital
In Washington, D.C., the physical landscape changed dramatically after 9-11, and it had begun to change earlier in response to other incidents, such as the first World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing. Understandably, these events triggered immediate security measures that were not sensitively designed and not necessarily meant to be permanent. One example is the bollards that were placed on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in 1995, and which stayed there until 2004. This approach was replicated in many locations throughout the city, with little thought to the short or long-term effect that such insensitively implemented barriers would have.

Fortunately, the problem with that strategy was eventually recognized and Congress set up the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). NCPC, which serves as the federal government’s central planning agency for the nation’s capital and is responsible for the review and approval of all development proposals on federal land in the national capital region, began to bring a different set of priorities to bear.

The commission ruled that the bollards did not enhance or improve the landscape and were a visual deterrent to building users and tourists alike. It also denied initial applications of the National Park Service for security proposals for the Washington Monument Grounds, which later led to a much improved proposal and final project in which bollards were given a more aesthetic appearance.

It’s worth noting that even high-quality bollard treatments won’t present well if the surrounding surfaces are of inferior quality—for example, rough concrete instead of attractive paving stones. However, otherwise austere bollard designs can work well when paired with appealing surface treatments, causing them to blend in and appear a natural part of the surroundings.

Bill Dowd, director of physical planning for the NCPC, comments that the agency continues to be concerned with the impact that these aggressive security measures have on individual and cumulative public spaces. The agency has published a series of documents and updated submission requirements to encourage other agencies to design more thoughtful security measures.

Whether in the national capital or at government facilities around the country, the need for security should be seen as an opportunity to achieve the best design, contribute to the sustainability of the environment, create buildings that will endure into the future, provide safe and productive federal workplaces, and improve the communities in which we work.

By carefully designing a site for its daily functions, incorporating security elements as seamlessly as possible, and allowing for adjustments in protection in response to varying levels of threat, designers can strike a successful balance and create public buildings that attain both security and openness. A successful process, allowing conscientious decision-making through collaboration and a thorough understanding of interrelated issues, is the foundation for achieving these goals.

Stephanie Vierra is technical editor and curriculum specialist for the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council of Washington, D.C., an educational nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of sustainable, high-performance buildings.

Bud DeFlaviis is the executive director of the council.