As the gun control and mental health debates rage on, see what AIA is doing to help schools be safer now

by Brianna Crandall — September 10, 2018 — The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and its members are launching a variety of initiatives to help address violence in schools through design.

2018 AIA President Carl Elefante, FAIA, stated:

Architects have a role to play in addressing school violence. For two decades, architects have worked with school communities racked by tragedy to develop better strategies in school design. While public discourse on access to firearms and mental health services remains deadlocked, the power of design can improve school safety now. AIA is committed to working with stakeholders and officials to make schools safer while building the positive, nurturing learning environments we all want for our children.

In a recent statement, “Where We Stand: School Design and Student Safety,” AIA outlines its commitment for improving school design policies. Specifically, AIA is launching a bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill to help state and local school officials better access information and funding to design safe and secure schools.

To that end, AIA will focus on two main goals:

  1. Making architectural and design services for schools an allowable use of funds within existing federal funding and grants; and
  2. Establishing a federal clearinghouse of resources on school design best practices for school officials, architects and other design professionals to keep them informed.

AIA members testifying

AIA member architects are taking part in advising federal, state and local officials across the country on school design.

On August 16, leading school-design architect Jay Brotman, AIA, designer of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School and partner at Svigals + Partners, testified as an AIA representative before senior White House cabinet officials. Brotman detailed best practices that were incorporated into the new Sandy Hook Elementary School. Most notably, Brotman explained that schools cannot be designed with a one-size-fits-all approach or utilizing a specific security prescription, as they need to be developed around input from the community and designed to address the specific needs of the students and teachers.

Brotman reminded the Federal Commission on School Safety:

The primary goal is to provide an inspiring, healthy environment that promotes learning. Security features, while vital and necessary, should be as invisible as possible and incorporated into the school’s design. Failing to do so puts children’s education, emotional development and pro-social behavior at risk.

Brotman detailed features of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School that create an open and welcoming design concept, which maximizes daylight and provides a layered approach to security — both natural and technological — seamlessly incorporated into the design.

Brotman explained:

There’s a rain garden with a sunken rock “river” along the entire front of the school — creating a moat of sorts, that is clearly not friendly to cars or people. The design then has three small footbridges to cross the rain garden to enter the school, which also controls entry. The children are unaware about the security benefits provided by the rain garden — and they don’t need to know. This small but impactful example shows the value of taking a comprehensive, design-centered approach to school security. It is a highly specific answer to multiple physical and emotional considerations at once.

On August 7, architect Stuart Coppedge, FAIA, Principal of RTA Architects, presented to the US Department of Education’s Federal Commission on School Safety during its listening session in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Coppedge provided the Commission with insights into the collaborative design and community evaluation processes architects employ to create great educational environments with enhanced safety.

On August 1, the Institute participated in a two-day Department of Homeland Security 2018 National School Security Roundtable. During the meeting, two leading members of the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE), Karina Ruiz, AIA, principal of BRIC Architecture, and Brian Minnich, AIA, of GWWO Architects explained how schools can be designed with open and positive learning environments while also enhancing safety and security. Recommendations from participants in the roundtable — including members of the academic community, law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services and other experts — could be included in future updates to federal design guidelines for schools.

In May, AIA announced the appointment of architect and former AIA President Jeff Potter, FAIA, to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s roundtable, which is intended to identify enhanced safety and security strategies for the state’s schools and communities. Additionally, AIA components in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and other states have been advising their governors and elected officials on the issue.

National symposium in October

On October 19, the Institute’s CAE is holding a national multidisciplinary symposium: “The Design of Safe, Secure and Welcoming Learning Environments,” at the AIA national headquarters in Washington. The symposium will bring together a wide variety of perspectives from stakeholders that include law enforcement, educators, mental health advocates, and security consultants, as well as architects and other design professionals. Together, they will share in a dialogue about the development of safe, secure and welcoming schools, which may inform the resources included in a federal clearinghouse.

Visit the School Design Safety Resources page on AIA’s website for more information on school design.

Architects can get involved by signing the “Power of Design” on school safety petition that will be sent to elected officials across the country.