How Architecture and Design Can Hinder Active Shooters

In June of this year, a 38-year-old man with a grudge against the Annapolis, Maryland, newspaper The Capital Gazette entered the four-story building that houses the paper, blasted through the office’s front doors with a shotgun, and proceeded to kill five staff members in a matter of minutes.

Though such public mass shootings are extremely rare—and are a tiny fraction of U.S. gun deaths as a whole—a spike in active shooter incidents in 2017 as well as earlier tragic cases such as Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012, in which 20 six- and seven-year-old children died, have stoked fears and amplified calls for strategies to deter active shooters.

Much attention has been paid to making schools safer in the wake of Sandy Hook and other, more recent shootings, such as at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Calls to securitize all types of buildings and spaces, from offices to hospitals to concert venues, are also widespread—and architects are among those responding to them. In the face of a lack of gun control legislation, design serves as a tangible way to address the problem.

Architecture and design have long played a role in making public buildings and spaces feel safer. After the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, designers placed bollards and concrete planters outside federal buildings to deter truck bombs, and installed glass able to withstand a blast in windows and doors. Efforts to make buildings—whether federal, commercial, or otherwise—more secure surged after 9/11.

New York City-based architect Barbara Nadel served as editor-in-chief of the 2004 volume Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design. She says that architects’ and building owners’ security focus has shifted since she first published the handbook from explosions and hazardous materials to new perils such as cybersecurity breaches and active shooters. Regardless, the first step to determine potential threats and vulnerabilities for any building or site is a risk assessment.

Security consultants, who may also be former law enforcement or military officers, often conduct these assessments. Their recommendations may involve architectural and landscape design elements as well as technology and facility operations. For instance, an assessment may recommend a limited number of entrances, technology like CCTV or metal detectors at public entrances, and training so that staff know exactly what to do or who to call if a threat is detected.

“The owner will decide which elements from the risk assessment to pursue, as there’s a price tag attached,” says Nadel. “The architect should understand the potential liability if a catastrophic event occurs and they, the engineer, and the owner have not adequately included established protective measures.”

At the same time, the idea is not that design can definitively protect people from an active shooter or other hazard, but rather that it can help discourage such threats or create delays that save lives. Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2016 AIA President and a building security expert, notes that architecture can’t resolve problems stemming from the nearly indiscriminate availability of powerful firearms in the U.S. “We shouldn’t expect building design to deter persons who turn to mass murder as a way to resolve issues or address grievances,” he says. “At best, design can facilitate early warning, offer places of refuge, and provide paths for escape.”

Design elements that can make a difference

Zach Hudson, CEO of Orlando-based Grantham Systems Incorporated, which trains employees on how to respond to active shooter situations and provides consulting on security-related construction, explains how warning, refuge, and escape strategies are put into practice. Though each building or space necessarily demands its own design, some tactics span all cases. Hudson stresses the need for a limited number of entrances that cannot be easily breached. In the case of Sandy Hook and the Capital Gazette, for instance, the doors were locked but the gunmen shot through glass that abutted or comprised them to gain entry. The use of bullet-resistant glass would likely have delayed them.

Entrances should also be monitored. Jay Brotman, AIA, of the New Haven firm Svigals + Partners—the architect of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School that opened in 2016—explains that the new school is situated such that all who approach it can be observed from the more public spaces. And when entering the building, one must cross a rain garden to reach the entrance. “Three footbridges span the garden and control access to the building,” Brotman explains.

Hudson adds that issuing badges and photographs for visitors in an office lobby is another way to control entry and access, and Nadel notes that hospital emergency rooms in particular need a limited number of entrances with good observation by medical and security personnel and CCTV due to the unpredictable populations and cases coming into the ER at any given time.

Once people have entered a building, whether a school, office, hospital, or otherwise, they must be allowed egress from a variety of exits. Hudson says that in Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub shooting of 2016, many clubgoers were killed because they retreated into bathrooms and closets, where the gunman found and shot them. “If patrons or employees have to shelter in place, there should be safe rooms available at strategic locations throughout the facility,” he says, adding that a doorknob lock or a door with a wood frame and drywall aren’t enough protection in such rooms. “Use Kevlar wall panels,” he says, “and have a secondary lock that is extra durable or even bullet resistant.”

Scaling up to big spaces

While office buildings, hospitals, clubs, and the like are more similar in their design needs regarding safety, concert and sports venues diverge due to their vast spaces and the fact that thousands of people congregate in them at a given time, making them particularly vulnerable sites. Though metal detectors can monitor what is carried in to a concert or game, shooters have found workarounds to such security. In the Las Vegas shooting of 2017, for instance, the gunman fired down on crowds at a country music festival from the 32nd floor of a hotel, killing 58.

Thus, though training is important anywhere—Nadel and Hudson both stress the need for in-depth and repeated training and drills for hospital doctors and nurses, office workers, and the like—it is particularly crucial for those who work at concert and sports venues. “You need a viable, real-world security plan,” says Hudson, “and the employees must be part of that solution through training and planning.” Creating a plan that ensures that people don’t all run for one exit, where they would create a chokepoint, as well as an easy target for a gunman, is one example of such training.

This people-centered strategy of keeping buildings and areas secure relates to the tenets of CPTED, or Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which have been foundational to risk mitigation since the 1970s. CPTED is based on the idea that criminal behavior is less likely to occur if those who would act perceive a risk of being detected or caught. Tactics such as keeping shrubs trimmed low and placing windows so they overlook sidewalks and parking lots allow people to easily observe their surroundings and ensure “eyes on the street.”

Though architects may be familiar with such security-enhancing design strategies, they are not always prioritized in plans for construction or renovation. Architect Randy Atlas, president of Atlas Safety & Security Design, Inc., and adjunct faculty at Florida Atlantic University, says that security is often an afterthought, making it less integrated in the design as a whole, as well as more expensive. “It’s time that we consider security as a design criterion for future architecture and built environments,” he says, noting that at least two cities—Tempe, Arizona, and Pompano Beach, Florida—now require that architectural plans go through a security review.

In order to keep public spaces from feeling too much like fortresses, Nadel and Brotman maintain that security design shouldn’t be too obvious. Sandy Hook Elementary School’s rain garden, for instance, is meant to provide security without making it feel like it’s providing security. And Nadel cites the example of designing an organized and welcoming lobby where the placement of metal detectors and screening is carefully thought out. “It’s best to blend in the detectors with the surroundings,” she says. “That way, they don’t feel like an afterthought and people are more apt to feel comfortable in the space.”

These strategies aim to make us feel more secure while at the same time retaining a sense of freedom of movement and aesthetic appeal. For architects, this creates a challenging task: They must not only provide such an equilibrium in their designs, but must also consider the low probability of danger despite the high anxiety that has gripped American culture.

The fact is that an infinitesimal number of us will face an active shooter, while many more will be killed driving our cars. And the safest place for a child, after all, is in school. But in order to feel more comfortable in this age of fear, design must respond to the vulnerability and unease many of us now feel in public buildings and spaces.

“If you’re not feeling safe, whatever the facts may be, you’re not going to thrive,” says Brotman. “Architects need to provide a level of security that makes people feel secure. It’s a balancing act.”