Transparent Security

March 3, 2006
Security doesn't need to be obtrusive, obvious, or restrictive to be effective

Buildings readers have always directed a great deal of respect toward security design, processes, and technology, so it’s no surprise - with public awareness at an all-time high - that their mentality (as well as their capital and operating dollars) has moved from a level of high importance to one that is continually top-of-mind.

Top-of-mind doesn’t necessarily have to mean in-your-face, however.

“Security need not be obtrusive, obvious, or restrictive to be effective,” says Barbara A. Nadel, principal of Forest Hills, NY-based Barbara Nadel Architect, who specializes in planning and design of justice, healthcare, and institutional facilities and is the author of Building Security Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design. Transparent security - meaning “not visible to the public eye” - is gaining momentum among building owners, facilities managers, security consultants, and design professionals as they explore what constitutes an effective security program in both new and existing buildings.

Nadel explains that, unlike other security techniques - such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), which relies on “eyes-on-the-street” observation, whereby neighborhoods promote resident surveillance - transparent security “came out of what happened in Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, acts of terrorism, and even natural disasters.” The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) embarked on studies of technology and building materials to learn how to make buildings safer. This evolved into a set of security standards, which was rolled up into the federal government’s Design Excellence program, eventually making its way into the design of some private buildings, too.

Maxwell Stevens, director of security design in the security systems design group at RTKL, Baltimore, concurs with this assessment, noting, “Prior to such events and disasters, most people wanted to see security. But, as the public became more involved and there were more requirements to implementing higher levels of security, it became apparent that security could become visibly overbearing. As a result, developers, designers, and manufacturers began developing ‘transparent’ technology and systems that were effective but not readily apparent to the public eye.”

As a well-known lecturer on the subject, Nadel points to 10 design considerations in achieving transparent security:

  1. Master planning.
  2. Site planning and landscape design.
  3. Interior planning, especially in lobbies and for circulation.
  4. Building envelope design, particularly in window systems and glazing.
  5. Planning for redundant systems, such as electrical and plumbing.
  6. Engineering considerations, such as those that involve MEP, fire protection, and structural systems.
  7. Technology.
  8. Operations, particularly policies and disaster planning.
  9. CPTED.
  10. Life-safety codes and industry standards.

“Not every building needs to address all 10 areas,” says Nadel, “but the sum is greater than each of the parts. We’ve come a long way from just putting up cameras and hiring security guards; there are a lot of strategies out there that can be developed.”

Making Informed Decisions
Because each building is unique, both Nadel and Stevens emphasize that any comprehensive security program begins with a threat analysis and vulnerability assessment.

“Building owners should first look at the assets they want to protect,” notes Nadel. “What is most important in a particular facility? It might be people; it might be merchandise in retailing. It could be stored data or gold bullion in a bank. The answer will be very different for each owner. In some respects, the insurance and potential liability if something were to occur may drive a lot of these decisions.”

Another important determinant is the occupancy of the site, explains Stevens. “The security requirements for office workers in a relatively [low-risk, low-threat commercial office building], for example, would be completely different than those for a federal or law enforcement facility. Once you know who is going to occupy the space, then you can begin to determine the level of security. Do you begin security at the perimeter of the building or site, or does it start in the lobby of a building?”

Don’t dismiss occupancy concerns after only a cursory review, however. “A facility may not house a government agency, but may include a business that does government work and is tasked to ensure a level of security required to fulfill a contract,” cautions Stevens. “Others might require a more secure site for work - such as R&D - being done.”

Vulnerability and risk assessments must also consider adjacencies: What else is in the region or area? “During site selection, this is a major issue,” notes Nadel. “Is there a potential target - an embassy, a chemical plant, a facility down the road that might cause a problem in some way? Whether you own the building or are renting space, it’s important to look at neighboring tenants to see if there are any threats that could potentially impact your facility.”

Once assets are identified, and occupancies and adjacencies assessed, building owners must look at other threats and concerns, according to Nadel. “Is the business located in an earthquake zone or in Tornado Alley? Outside of New York City and Washington, D.C., fewer security concerns relate to acts of terrorism. People figure, ‘That’s not going to happen here,’ but natural disasters are a potential threat.”

Nadel suggests that facilities professionals conduct a security survey that evaluates all physical elements in a building against threat criteria. It might begin with terrorism threats and characteristics - explosives or the release of chemical agents, for instance. Criminal threats - such as assault, vandalism, or employee/workplace violence - should be considered. Then review potential environmental threats: fire, earthquakes, floods, ice storms, etc. Lastly, determine such infrastructure failure or service interruption threats as power blackouts, water supply disruption or contamination, or non-working heating/cooling systems. “A successful survey ensures that all aspects are investigated,” says Nadel, including checklists, photographs of vulnerable areas and existing conditions, and as-built drawings, specifications, and other appropriate building documents.

Getting the Team On Board
One of the most valuable components of any security program is timing, say Stevens and Nadel. “The best time to address security concerns is in the initial phase of putting the building together,” explains Stevens. “You’re able to gather the entire team to determine 1) who’s occupying the space; 2) what level of security is going to be needed; and 3) how the space can best be controlled. Once those questions are answered, an owner and project team can begin to formulate a policy as to how the design should proceed.”

That team, according to Nadel, is multidisciplinary: “from the building owner or landlord to tenant group representatives; from local law enforcement to code officials; from all elements of the design - landscape, structural, MEP engineers, etc. - to security staffing and operations specialists. They must work in concert to ensure the best results in a comprehensive security plan. A good security plan covers design, technology, and operations.

“Each is important and effective on its own, but when combined together, they are the most effective,” she adds. “The owner, typically, will determine the technology that goes in the building with the engineers. The owner also has to determine how operations will flow: Will the building be operated 24/7 or on weekends? How will the staff and building occupants be trained to exit the building during emergencies or deal with an intruder?

“Architects and engineers can provide a good design, so the sooner they can understand the owner’s issues or requirements, [the sooner] they can plan to accommodate them,” she says. Although the premiums for addressing certain security issues may sometimes be too high for an owner’s budget, such collaboration - with an emphasis on priority of need - will ensure more effective solutions or better decisions when a balance or trade-off in other project areas must be weighed. It also allows the possible future phasing-in of technology and other design elements as part of a security master plan.

Existing construction, not surprisingly, is more complex, but requires the same timing, team involvement, and thought process. That three-pronged approach - design, technology, and operations - can result in some interesting solutions, says Nadel. “I’ve designed prisons and correctional facilities, and when designing secure facilities like that, the design team always tries to reduce the number of officer posts because that’s an ongoing operational expense. A corrections officer post in a prison, or even a guard in an at-risk commercial facility, is required to be on duty 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That’s an ongoing operational expense per post that may be filled by several people, each with salaries and benefits if they are on staff. Outsourcing to private companies still involves fees. If there’s a way to use design - with open corridors, good visibility, durable materials, and observation capabilities, thus allowing strategic placement of cameras for certain views and other high-tech devices - the long-term operational costs of additional personnel, with escalating salaries and fringe benefits, can be balanced against a one-time capital cost for design and equipment costs of technology. Ongoing routine maintenance and replacement should be considered as well. Capital costs represent a significant one-time investment, but over the lifetime of a building (which may range from 20 to 50 years), these big-ticket items should pay for themselves relatively quickly when compared to overall long-term staffing costs.”

Transparency in Application
So, transparent security - at least achieving its goal, which is to protect the building assets as defined by the owner - is not unlike any effective security program. It begins - and is driven through design, construction, and operations - with an effective master plan, based on team collaboration and an approach that encompasses design, technology, and operations.

The way in which the approach is handled is the difference. Nadel and Stevens provide a short list of some transparent security applications:

  • In a fence-line application, a visitor or employee might still need to gain access to a building through a gate guarded by a security officer or an electronic arm. The transparent aspect is not readily apparent; it might be cameras along the fence line that integrate well with the surrounding shrubs, etc.
  • Effective lighting is always a good crime deterrent, but a transparent aspect might reveal that the light poles also mask surveillance cameras, especially in historic districts where street furniture is designed to blend into the environment.
  • Specialty planters, berming of landscape, and other seemingly aesthetic additions to a building entrance can prevent vehicles from gaining too-close access to a building while mitigating the effects of a blast attack. In urban environments, public art and sculptural elements can be engineered to provide appropriate levels of protection from vehicles.
  • Hardening of buildings against explosives and other threats is invisible to the eye, but includes strengthening the building exterior skin and structural systems to resist progressive collapse and the effects of a blast attack.
  • Within this “hardening” philosophy, blast-resistant glass and glass film can work well and isn’t readily apparent.
  • Outside air intakes for all HVAC equipment can be located well above-grade and in less easily accessible areas, and include air-intake sensors to detect any biological or chemical hazards; ancillary motorized dampers can be installed to prevent contaminants from entering occupied spaces.
  • Electronic turnstiles are non-obtrusive, but effective in reading - and recording - identities of those entering or exiting a space. Turnstiles, in fact, are effective in preventing any piggy-back entry.
  • Operations that include CPTED buy-in from building occupants - from office workers to students in a K-12 facility - can be effective, especially when implemented in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies.
  • Smart systems that control fire alarm and building systems also alert operations personnel and building occupants to emergency-mode status.

The bottom line, according to Nadel: “We can learn a lot from the past. Although there is no single security code in the United States - rather a patchwork of industry guidelines, best practices, and local building codes - it is incumbent upon building owners and public officials to understand what’s happening and determine what they want to adopt and how to protect their citizens,” she says. “Information and resources are out there, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST] report about the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, which contains a number of recommendations for the entire building industry ( and, and Local Law 26, adopted by the New York City Department of Buildings, in response to the events of 9/11, which addresses high-rise safety issues ( Owners and their consultants, as well as architects and engineers, need to remain current on security planning and design; they all can be held liable if something happens at one of their facilities, whether from terrorism or natural disasters.”

Linda K. Monroe ([email protected]) is editorial director at Buildings magazine. Barbara A. Nadel’s book, Building Security Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design © 2004 by The McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc., is available at your local bookstore, on, or by writing to the Director of Special Sales, McGraw-Hill Professional, Two Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121-2298.

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