By: Bryant Williams, ASID Alabama Chapter Administrator

How many times have you heard or said, interior design is concerned with the health, safety and welfare of the public (HSW)?  We first heard it in school and we have not stopped hearing it since.  But are we really encompassing all aspects of that phrase? Do we have limits to our responsibility for public safety? Do we stop at fire-prevention, low VOCs and trip hazards, just to name a few? Let us look at some of the modern dangers faced by the public and ask ourselves if we should be paying more attention–call it “security design thinking.”

Lawmakers have been unable or unwilling to propose innovative ways to curtail gun violence so, maybe, it is time for others to step up, namely interior designers.  Let us not kid ourselves.  Although we hear more about mass shootings in schools, gun violence and violence in its entirety can be experienced anywhere.  Violence strikes when least expected and we are not designing with prevention in mind. 

We must design to minimize death and injury. 

From offices to shopping malls and churches, this is where the principles of “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” (CPTED) comes into play. CPTED’s mission is “the proper design and effective use of the built environment that can lead to a reduction in the fear, incidence of crime, and an improvement in the quality of life”. CPTED’s principles are(1):

  • Natural Surveillance: the capacity to see what is occurring without having to take special measures;
  • Natural Access Control: the capacity to limit who can gain entry to a facility, and how;
  • Territoriality: the capacity to establish authority over an environment;
  • Maintenance: if a nuisance is allowed to exist unmitigated, it will lead to others;
  • Target Hardening: designing a designated part of a building or space to be more difficult to forcibly enter.

As mentioned, violence can occur anywhere but, for this article, I will use schools as the primary focus while keeping in mind the same principles used can be incorporated in all spaces. Currently, most responses to curtail violence in schools involve metal detectors, armed guards, and drills.  However, these solutions contribute to the coarsening of an environment, thus, bringing other detrimental outcomes.  Research shows that faculties teach and students learn better when the environment feels safe and no one is overburdened with fear.  A study of 7,000 students aged 12-19 suggested that “active” security measures such as metal detectors, locked doors, and security guards contributed to an environment of crime and violence.  Overemphasis on security can do more harm than good, causing kids to feel heightened anxiety and more like their safety is at risk.   Conversely, security professionals say that environments that feel safe, warm and orderly make criminals uncomfortable.

Call it a balancing act.

Just as in “Universal Design,” the goal is to protect people and save lives without disrupting everyday routines. When designing the new Sandy Hook School, the architects and interior designers paid equal attention to safety and comfort. The architect, Julia McFadden, used biophilic design principles to connect students to nature and the use of color and texture to make the space reflect the connections with one another.  In her design, McFadden utilized a security barrier in the form of a moat, a “rain garden” of sorts, that circulates captured rainwater from the roof.  “Security works best when it is least disruptive both because invisible surveillance is harder to game and because, inevitably, corners will be cut if security feels too intrusive.”(2)

In her book, “Design and Security in the Built Environment,” Linda O’Shea asks “the universal need for security and safety is not in question, rather, the question is how can designers define and conceptualize the parameters of this need and address it in the built environment?” I highly recommend investing in this insightful and inspirational book.

So, how are ways we can answer Ms. O’Shea’s question?  Here are some solutions I found while researching:

  1. Design in segments that are divided by fire-doors. These can be closed at the push of a button in the event of an attack to close off compartments and isolate the attacker from students.
  2. Utilize large expanses of glazing to reveal sight lines from a reception area that will offer views of the exterior approach and interior spaces within the building.
  3. Fit door handles with interior locks.
  4. Investigate the growing market of ballistic furniture – chairs, desks, cubicle dividers, and even whiteboards – that offers the usual functionality but is also bulletproof. (One Texas company, Heracles Research Corporation, offers sofas upholstered with fabric that can stop bullets; the couch cushions even have handles that can be used as shields.)
  5. Limit the number of entrances allowing each to be well surveilled.
  6. Design without right angles, niches and high-perimeter shrubbery.
  7. Criminals don’t like to be seen, so open up buildings and sites by adding large expanses of ballistic-level glass windows.
  8. Utilize curved hallways, meant to reduce sightlines for shooters, and jutting barriers throughout to provide shelter during an attack.
  9. Research and use blast-resistant sheetrock.

Although concise, I hope this article has given you something to think about.  Until solutions are discovered to curtail violence in this country, we must adjust and find better ways of ensuring safety.

It is up to you to educate your client on the benefits of taking extra measures to protect the users of a space.

(1) CPTED – Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design,

(2) “How Architecture and Design Can Help Prevent School Shootings”; Guelda Voien,