Designing Security into Buildings

March 31, 2009
Do you know what CPTED is? Do you know that ignoring CPTED might cause an owner to lose a premises liability lawsuit?

CPTED stands for Crime Prevention through Environmental Design. Tort lawyers know CPTED inside out, according to Jon Lusher, ICCA, principal and executive vice president at IPC Intl. Corp., a security consultancy in Bannockburn, IL.

“Tort lawyers have told me time and again that property owners who don’t apply CPTED design ideas to their buildings may be sued for failing to take reasonable steps to protect tenants and visitors,” Lusher says.

The converse is also true, Lusher notes. CPTED design reduces the likelihood of crime. But, if a crime does occur, CPTED design elements may provide evidence of reasonable care.

CPTED isn’t just for new buildings. It’s a way of thinking about design that makes it possible to assess security problems in existing buildings.

“Used properly, CPTED makes bad actors uncomfortable,” says Lusher. “When you make bad actors uncomfortable, you also make law-abiding citizens comfortable.”

For example, one of six core CPTED principles calls for building designs that facilitate natural surveillance, which involves designing and placing building features to ensure clear sightlines and visibility. When criminals cannot find a hiding place that enables them to avoid being observed and possibly apprehended, they feel uncomfortable and often go elsewhere.

CPTED design solutions often turn out to be matters of common sense. Imagine an office building with a poorly illuminated front entrance, which, at night, creates a natural surveillance problem and casts shadows for someone to hide. The common-sense solution: eliminate the shadows with better lighting.

Common sense, yes; simple, no. Getting CPTED right can require an experienced head. Lusher cited many cases that called for counter-intuitive CPTED solutions.

In one case, natural surveillance conflicted with another CPTED principle: territoriality.

As a CPTED principle, territoriality separates private, semi-private, and public spaces with design components and signage.

“The conflict came about this way,” Lusher says. “A strip shopping center in Los Angeles suffered a rash of break-ins and drug thefts in a dentist’s office at one end of the center. Outside the dentist’s office, a solid, 8-foot-tall fence closed off the end of the strip. I suggested removing the fence.” (A fence that a territorial CPTED principle designed to keep people out, but it wasn’t working at the strip center.) When the owner removed the fence, the break-ins magically stopped.

“The fence was solid,” Lusher explains. “Once a thief got inside the fence, no one outside could see. He felt comfortable. Taking down the fence allowed natural surveillance to function. People outside could see the center. Thieves didn’t want to go inside anymore.”

A see-through chain-link fence might have worked. But, that didn’t fit the center’s image. The counter-intuitive idea of removing the fence did.

Access management describes the third CPTED principle. It deals with design techniques that place entrances and exits, and guide people to them with wayfinding techniques, including surface treatments, lighting, landscaping, and architectural features.

A fourth CPTED principle is physical maintenance. It’s more common sense: A clean building in excellent repair makes tenants comfortable and encourages them to range through the building, creating an environment where natural surveillance can work.

The fifth CPTED principle, order maintenance, calls for a security director to focus attention on minor and major problems. Lusher notes that security often concentrates on serious problems to the exclusion of minor ones. Research shows, however, that failing to control simple disorderly behavior correlates with the eruption of serious crime in the future.

Finally, the sixth core CPTED principal of activity support suggests creating common spaces capable of hosting activities. Entrance lobbies can set up coffee centers to serve tenants that stay late or arrive early, attracting people to the lobbies during off hours. Cafeterias can host occasional receptions for tenants, or gatherings sponsored by tenants. The idea is to spread activity throughout the building and promote natural surveillance, access management, and territoriality.

Should a CPTED expert look over your building? Think about incidents that have occurred in your building. Look over the list of CPTED principles and apply each to the incidents and the location. Might there be a CPTED solution? If so, a CPTED expert might be of help.

To learn more, get a copy of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design by Timothy Crowe. It’s published by Butterworth-Heinemann, and is now in its second edition.

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