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College students use a sidewalk to move through campus.

Designing for Safety in Higher Education Facilities

Sept. 20, 2023
Architects and designers are urged to prioritize safety measures alongside structural design and aesthetics for higher education campuses.

Architects and designers focus on the structural design, floorplan layout and aesthetic of buildings to best meet the needs of the users. But when it comes to the design of educational facilities, are you accounting for the safety of the design early enough in the process?

Exterior Campus Safety Strategies

Campus safety should not be an afterthought, argued Alex Halliday, Genetec’s Regional Director for the consultant group of Canada. Utilization of security consultants early in the design and building processes can ensure safety remains at the forefront of design and can even reduce the security budget later, Halliday says.

“If security and operational security are involved in the conversation, then you can take advantage of the resources in different ways to incorporate into the architectural design to reduce the security budget,” he said. “Instead of having security pay for a fence, you’ve got landscaping paying for a hedge and making everything look proper and work together.”

Colleges and universities should be designed with clear lines of sight and controlled access points, which does not stop at the design of buildings.

Paul Timm, director of education safety for Allegion who has assessed over 2,000 schools, said Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design’s (CPTED) principles were designed to reduce crime, which can be accomplished through intentionally well-designed, maintained, and friendly natural environments that foster a culture of safety.

“It all comes from what was called the Broken Windows Theory–if you have a building and you come in on Monday and you find out a window was broken and you put in a ticket and replace it a week from now, you’re going to have more broken windows,” Timm said. “But if you replace it immediately and return it to situation normal, you’re far less likely to get more broken windows.”

Updates to lighting, controlled access points and increased security can enhance campus security. LED lights are most popular because of their efficiency and brightness but may require community sessions to address concerns.

“Occasionally we’ll get people who say, ‘My neighbors are complaining about lighting, so I can’t run that lighting,’” Timm said. “It’s safest for the community to run that lighting at night because the band concert gets out late and we don’t want kids walking through a dark parking lot–we don’t want anyone walking through a dark parking lot and police want to clearly see as they drive by.”

Cones can be placed on exterior lights to direct illumination down, reducing impacts to neighbors, if necessary. However, higher-education campuses can educate the community about how lights enhance safety not only on campus but also on the adjacent properties. Layered lighting is a technique used to ensure the type of light is conducive to the needs of the space. Halliday said certain light is better for the eye, but not good for video surveillance, so an evaluation for interior and exterior spaces will inform which lighting type to use.

The presence of good lighting and vegetation is crucial in parking lots, along walkways and at entries. Timm noted CPTED guidance states no shrubs should be taller than three feet and all tree limbs should be cleared 8 feet high in those areas. Timm recommends architects involved in landscape design around those three areas should plant something with the word miniature in the name to maintain that line of sight. Recent landscape trends are incorporating decorative grasses like prairie grasses or tiger grasses. While the natural aesthetics are pleasing, the grasses are tall and obstruct views.

The outdoor campus environment also needs security measures in place to keep everyone safe during their time on campus. Open spaces for soccer fields, concerts or even pathways around campus can benefit from shrubbery and hedges that maintain visibility, but funnel access. Planting waist-high hedges and trees with no low-hanging branches as well as placing planters in front of buildings that have reinforced steel in the center can make a campus aesthetically pleasing while incorporating natural security features.

In areas with fall hazards, use anti-slip tape and signage to alert people of those risks. Install video cameras to capture traffic for the institution’s protection against legal action. It’s also important to consider properties and businesses adjacent to the campus property and how people enter and leave those spaces. That can inform the layouts of campus buildings. Future campus growth should also be discussed as part of campus safety strategies to ensure the current project’s infrastructure flows into future expansion and renovation plans.

Tips to Secure Classrooms

Classrooms should also have a good line of sight, so faculty and students can see the entire room, and if someone threatening enters, people have time to react.

Effective security implementation requires communication between the builders and campus leadership to identify the risk and security tolerances.

“You can have a secure campus that has every door locked, no windows, walls and gates that essentially look like a correctional institution, but that’s not a very good learning environment,” Halliday said. “On the other end of the spectrum, you have this open field and easy buildings and tents with no security. So, how do the architects have good communication with the end user to understand what their security and risk tolerances are to make it balance?”

With tolerances identified, architects can also develop evacuation routes and shelter-in-place locations to meet each campus’ needs. Primary and secondary evacuation routes should be marked within classrooms and hallways, along with appropriate exit signage. A higher-education campus in Florida may need shelter in place for a weather-related concern not found on campuses in landlocked areas. Other instances may be for a security incident, so campuses need to be able to secure doors and windows.

Strategies that campuses, especially open campuses, can implement to deter and prevent unauthorized access to buildings include visible security personnel and security points, intercom systems, and video surveillance to control access remotely. Designs for higher-education student residential halls that feature secured vestibules and limit access by floor add layers of security to those buildings. Timm said laminated or ballistic glass will be the new standard for exterior doors. The glass is transparent but prevents someone from breaking it as they can tempered glass. That shift comes after the March 2023 Covenant School shooting in Nashville, where a shooter fired through panes of glass on the exterior doors.

Building locations and pathways should be placed with safety in mind. Timm noted how the COVID-19 pandemic called to light the importance of controlled access and wayfinding.

“Wayfinding is a silver lining of the pandemic because in the pandemic we had to be very careful with where people were coming in and then we couldn’t let them all cluster in one place,” Timm said. “We had to egress through a different door and wayfinding helped us with all of this.”

Architects and designers may prioritize structural design and aesthetics when planning educational facilities. But safety is just as important, if not more when constructing campus buildings. You can integrate safety measures into your designs for higher education to ensure the resiliency of the building, save money and save lives.

About the Author

Lauren Brant | Buildings Editor

Lauren Brant is the editor of Buildings. She is an award-winning editor and reporter whose work appeared in daily and weekly newspapers. In 2020, the weekly newspaper won the Rhoades Family Weekly Print Sweepstakes  — the division winner across the state's weekly newspapers. Lauren was also awarded the top feature photo across Class A papers. She holds a B.A. in journalism and media communications from Colorado State University - Fort Collins and a M.S. in organizational management from Chadron State College.

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