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Illustration by Traci Daberko

How to Build a Better Security Space

​Like many campus law enforcement agencies, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) Police Department spent years relegated to locations that were not conducive to providing quality service.

The department was housed in four separate locations that were formerly a bank, a dentist’s office, a cannery, and a warehouse that had served as a hardware distribution facility. For the 36 sworn police officers and 28 nonsworn staff, being spread across multiple locations made daily communications and operations burdensome.

The need for a new, unified facility had been apparent for years, but it always seemed to be “next on the list.” A convergence of events, however, moved the need to the top of the list in 2011 as the university began an expansion into an area previously thought to be inaccessible because it was on the other side of a large rail corridor to the south of campus.

The expansion included a pedestrian underpass connecting the two sides of campus and a student recreation center that would require the demolition of the old cannery building, one of the department’s four sites.

University administration believed that a new police facility on the south side of campus, next to the new underpass, would be a visual assurance of safety. Additionally, the old dentist’s office had originally been purchased as a transition space for departments whose facilities were under renovation. Having the police department in that transitional space was adversely affecting other campus projects.

Finally, the need became most apparent when conducting critical incident response exercises. No space on campus satisfied the needs of the university during times of crisis. Several exercises, including active shooter, tornado strike, and hazardous material spills, resulted in the same after-action item: the university needed a space designed for critical incident response.

Selecting an architect was the most critical part of the new facility planning. During the interview process for designers, the university looked to a firm with experience in designing public safety facilities. 

The university spoke with a variety of clients about ADW Architects of Charlotte, North Carolina, including state construction officials. What impressed the university most was the reputation the firm had for spending time with the employees who would work in the new facility, and mapping out their daily operations. 

While other firms interviewed provided presentations, only ADW spoke from experience about needs assessments of public safety agencies.​


The first step in the design process was programming—the process of determining space needs for each individual function in the organization and how to use that space most effectively. The process helped determine how much space the UNCG Police Department needed to conduct its business most effectively. 

To begin programming, a design team was created. Representatives from the police department, the designer, purchasing, the agency construction and design staff, and a university technology team served as the core decision makers in the design process.

Members of the design team spent many hours with various members of the department. They followed officers on assignments and observed the arrest process. They sat with communications personnel to note how dispatchers interacted with the public, the officers, and each other. They shadowed detectives as they interviewed suspects and conducted case follow-up. And they tracked evidence through collection, initial storage, processing, and final storage.

The programming process provided the first opportunity for input by the department on design. A detailed report on each room included the square footage, number of outlets, necessary data and phone ports, lighting, and probable furnishings. 

It was critical at this stage to involve those employees who would be occupying or controlling specific areas because decisions made early on would influence actions during construction. 

For instance, the type and placement of furniture in a conference room might determine the location of floor boxes for electric and data outlets. An office would need a carpet, while a canine kennel would need a nonslip, epoxy floor. Based on input, the individual programming reports were adjusted to reflect final room and space configurations.

Another important part of programming included visiting recently constructed facilities that served a similar function. One of the main advantages of this process was to discover what the agency would have done differently. An evaluation of the positive aspects of their design is important, but the list of “I wish we had…” items helps designers avoid mistakes.

Additionally, visiting recently constructed facilities allowed for an evaluation of the most current technology. During a visit to the police department in Apex, North Carolina, the design team observed an interview room recording system activated by the use of a key. The team had already discussed the concept of using card access throughout the new UNCG Police facility. Discussions with the Apex department’s vendor revealed that they were introducing a card-activated system that could integrate UNCG’s card access technology.

The result of the programming process was a list of spaces that were needed to perform daily operations along with the space needed for each one. The initial estimate of the building needs was 31,000 square feet, but university construction officials stepped in and required that 4,000 square feet be eliminated to match the budget. This reduced the final area of the facility to 27,000 square feet.​


After programming was complete, the architects turned individual room reports into a building concept. For architects, the process is more “art meets engineering,” but to everyone else, there is a sense of mystery as to how all the pieces are put together to create an aesthetically pleasing design. 

A significant part of the process was the input of the governing body and the senior management of the university. Designers at this stage must navigate an often politically charged environment while maintaining the original overall concept.

For example, designers did not want to have “UNCG Police” on the façade of the building because that did not conform with university specifications. The Board of Trustees for the university, however, wanted the nature of the building clearly visible to the public. The end result was backlit lettering with “UNCG Police” on both the east and west rooflines. 

It was at this point in the process that interior design and furniture selection took place. Most architects have experienced interior-design professionals on the payroll, and they should be consulted because this can be—by far—the most confusing and mentally taxing part of the process. The combinations of colors and finishes were almost infinite. 

The design team asked the interior designer to select two to four schemes and present them. This took the form of design boards that had small samples of paint colors, tiles, carpet, and counter tops. The department then selected the most desirable interior and made modifications based on that design.​


The next step was to begin the bidding process—required under North Carolina law—and select a construction company. To allow maximum flexibility in budgeting, the bid asked for pricing on several “add-alternate” items. These add-alternate items were above minimum bid, but were preferred by the designers. Some examples included polished block walls instead of plain block walls or poured terrazzo flooring instead of tile. UNCG was fortunate that all add-alternate items were included in the final bid and covered by the original budget.

In construction, the phrase “timing is everything” is true. Ground was broken on the construction site in December with a plan to schedule most of the concrete and masonry work during the summer months. 

But the first scoop of earth from the backhoe brought bad news; the initial site testing missed significant soil contamination. Research uncovered that the site had once been a petroleum distillery. The resulting delay put masonry and concrete work in the cold winter months, and cleanup cost $600,000 in soil removal and remediation. 

This one oversight led to a one-year delay in construction. An important lesson learned was to insist on the most detailed soil testing available before beginning construction.

Once construction begins, the most important advice to any chief or department head is to be there, on site, every day. If you are not there, decisions will be made without your input that may have repercussions in daily operations.

When you are on site, pay attention to every detail. Once a concrete floor is poured, it is difficult to go back and install a floor box with electricity. Blueprints are created with best practices in engineering, but there are times when those designs are not practical for operations. Observation during construction is the best way to catch those inconsistencies between form and function, such as when wiring conduit and air ductwork needed to occupy the same space. 

After construction begins, changes can be made to the design, but there will be a cost. Construction companies charge a premium for change orders. Construction budgets contain contingency funds for changes, but those funds are limited. A cost-benefit analysis must take place when considering change orders.​


Making the transition from previous facilities to the new one required a great deal of coordination. Moving a modern public safety agency required considerations for emergency phone lines, alarm monitoring, radio communications, and a host of other critical infrastructure items. The UNCG Police Department created operational plans, much like those drafted for a large-scale event, to structure and schedule the move.

Even with advanced planning, critical errors can have a profound effect. A scheduling error in the phone company’s computer system caused the department’s phones to go off-line for nearly 16 hours. Emergency text and e-mail messages to the community notified members to call 911 for emergencies. The county 911 center then notified the department of a call over radio or via cell phone.

To help avoid these problems, a transition team is critical. Key areas, such as field operations, communications, and IT, should all have assigned roles. 

One role that might be overlooked is that of delivery manager. The department was fortunate to have all new furniture purchased for the building. That meant multiple companies making multiple deliveries, each needing set times for installation. 

In addition, the North Carolina State Construction office had strict guidelines for the receipt and inspection of furniture at the university. Every item had to be inspected as it was unpacked and installed to avoid accusations that damages occurred after installation. A secondary check occurred to doc­ument damage that occurred dur­ing installation. 

The transition plan should also prioritize the scheduling of who moves and when. In the UNCG transition, communications personnel moved first, then field operations, and finally, administration and support functions. 

Considerations should be given to the times when equipment becomes operational. For instance, the timing of the switch-over of fire alarm monitoring dictated that communications be the first in line for transition.

The final transition step was to begin tracking correction items. Defects in construction or flaws in design began to reveal themselves as people begin to occupy the space. 

UNCG used a Google spreadsheet that was shared with the designer and builder to do this. Each entry tracked the location, a brief description of the issue, the party responsible for remediation, the date reported, current status, and the date of completion.​


Once the construction and transition were complete, it was important to mark the occasion. When the building was open for business in 2015, it was a milestone for the agency, its personnel, and the people they serve. It was also an opportunity to thank those involved and challenge the employees to demonstrate that the time, money, and effort spent on the building be repaid with excellent service.

It is rare to have the opportunity to design and construct a new facility from the ground up. Careful planning and attention to detail will make the process rewarding, and those rewards will be appreciated for many years to come.  


James C. Herring, Jr., is the chief of police and director of public safety and emergency management at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. He retired as chief of police for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). He has a master of public affairs from UNCG and is a member of the faculty in the College of Security and Criminal Justice at the University of Phoenix.