Jenine Kotob, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer at Quinn Evans Architects in Washington, D.C. While she was always passionate about the arts and skilled at math and science, what shaped her career path was the impact of being a Virginia Tech student during the 2007 on-campus shooting. That harrowing experience stuck with her during a two-year graduate program at MIT, where she concentrated on school design with a focus on overseas conflict zones. “I started to view design as a tool for engagement and community development,” she says, “as opposed to a static industry where you’re building objects.”
When you compare schools to other buildings or venues, the expectations are very different. Schools are unique; parents trust the building—and the principals and teachers who run it—to keep their children safe. It’s a huge and awesome responsibility, and it takes more than architecture to follow through on that trust. As a society, we need to support schools culturally through smart and sound legislation and policy.
When people call for the hardening of our schools, I think that is a gut reaction from parents and community members in pain, and I think people with agendas often take advantage of that opportunity. This means architects have a charge to step forward, present the facts, and lead conversations. Sometimes that goes above and beyond what we typically do, but we’ve made so much progress with school design that we can’t go back now.
That said, a building is only as safe and secure as its users. If the front door is propped open, there will always be a weakness. With that in mind, I am currently one of 60 leaders from around the country that have come together under the umbrella of the Association for Learning Environments [A4LE]. We are a diverse group: architects, designers, administrators, teachers, students, and parents. We’ve all contributed to a school safety and security guide that A4LE has produced and continually revises; design is only one chapter, along with preparedness, policy, technology, and so on. The point being, there is a holistic conversation that is already happening in some capacity, and architects must be present at the table.
Every architect currently working on a school project is going to be asked, “What are you doing about security?” This is not new, and we’ve always been thinking about and designing safe and secure spaces. But now I think we need to be more confident in stating what we know, expressing that we’re going to continue learning, and getting better at talking about a topic that is charged politically and emotionally. That is the transformation we’ll need if we want our work to be more relevant going forward. —As told to Steve Cimino
For more, read AIA's statement on school design and student safety and sign the "power of design" petition.