Designing With an Eye On Security

For me, it started as an e-mail from my college roommate with a link and the simple message “Something bad is happening at Tech.” Although I was thousands of miles away working in the London office of Steffian Bradley Architects at the time, when I clicked the link and saw the events playing out at Virginia Tech, I was instantly transported back to Blacksburg. The images on the monitor were both familiar and surreal, and from that moment forward the peaceful college campus where I had spent nearly a decade of my life would be changed forever.

I earned multiple degrees at Virginia Tech and credit my time there with a vast amount of personal and professional growth. Many of my second- and third-year classes were held in Norris Hall, as it was a primary classroom building for engineering lectures and labs. The beautiful Collegiate Gothic building is typical of many classroom buildings constructed in the mid-20th century, with long, double-loaded corridors to maximize useable space and stairs and exits located to allow for an orderly evacuation in case of fire. Most classrooms hold about 50 people and have a single door. It is likely that the people who designed this building were more concerned about nuclear fallout than a student rampaging through the corridors with an automatic weapon, but that is exactly what happened on April 16, 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho murdered 30 of his 32 victims in this building in the deadliest school shooting in United States history.

Changes Brought About by Tragedy
In the wake of this tragic event, which occurred three years ago this week, there have been significant changes at my alma mater, as well as other institutions of higher learning and also within my profession. The administration at Virginia Tech was criticized and praised in equal measure for their handling of the situation. But in true Hokie fashion, they have moved forward to become a leader in implementing campus alert systems utilizing the Internet, e-mail, text messaging, telephones, electronic message boards, and campus sirens and loudspeakers, creating a multiple-redundant system that has been replicated on many campuses and has, in fact, become the norm for colleges and universities across the country.

As architects, we are left to work out what we can do to help stem the tide of campus violence that we experienced firsthand throughout the past year. Violence has erupted at a number of campuses, including the University of Connecticut, Florida International University, and Yale University. As a profession, we generally agree that the “open” campus model dating back hundreds of years is something we do not want to lose; after all, would Yale’s Old Campus or Harvard Yard retain their character if they were dotted with metal-detector checkpoints? Obviously the design solution has to be more subtle, and work in tandem with technology and communication to create a campus that is welcoming and yet as safe as possible. 

Working From the Outside Inwards

For buildings, entrances and exits are a good place to start. When I heard that Cho was holed up in Norris Hall I immediately feared the worst, since I remembered the traditional “crash bars” at all exits, which could easily be chained and padlocked. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened, leaving students and faculty trapped inside. Contemporary push-pad exit devices allow the same ease of exit in case of an emergency, but can only be locked by an authorized person using a key.

In the classrooms themselves, a helpful security option is to provide an emergency push-button intercom connected directly to campus or local security, akin to what is used in banks or in nurse-call systems. By using Internet connections already in the classroom, it would be possible for professors or students to quickly call for help in case of classroom violence or even a common medical emergency.

In addition to the buildings themselves, there is also concern about the campus at large, which is typically dealt with through the campus master plan. While building shape and placement is usually considered for program, adjacencies, and overall aesthetics, it is also important to consider sightlines and views between buildings and the location of lights and emergency call boxes, as well as multiple paths for evacuating a space. These concepts have always been a concern for individual crimes such as muggings and rape, but perhaps it is time to consider that large groups of people may need to exit a section of campus quickly to avoid an individual or individuals intent on doing harm to as many people as possible.

Safety at Lasell College
Steffian Bradley Architects recently completed a project at Lasell College in Newton, MA, that created much-needed parking underground with a green roof on top of the facility, creating a new residential quad for the school. By creating a wide-open grassy quad in place of a congested surface parking lot, we were able to provide a space that was not only more student-friendly and aesthetically pleasing, but also more sustainable and much safer.

After discussions with many of my colleagues, it is clear that none of us believe we can solve the issues of campus security with architecture alone — the solution needs to include a combination of design, communication, and technology resulting from a focused discussion between the university and the designers. If thinking more about safety in our designs helps to save just one student or faculty or staff member, then it will be time well spent.

Chris Waltz is a senior associate at Steffian Bradley Architects’ Enfield, CT office. He is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Chris can be reached at or 860/627-1922.

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