Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

Storm Shelters for Education Facilities

When architects design education projects, keeping students safe is top of mind. When inclement weather hits, students, teachers, and staff should feel safe in the school’s storm shelter.

The 2018 International Building Code (IBC) requires that all Group E occupancies that fall within ICC 500’s 250-mph-windspeed map with an occupant load of 50 or more have a storm shelter constructed in accordance with ICC 500 (the ICC/NSSA Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters.) This standard provides minimum design and construction requirements from structural design criteria, occupant density, critical support systems, and impact and pressure testing, to name a few.

Beyond protecting occupants, design teams should ensure they’ve designed everything needed to maintain safety, communications, and comfort. When designing storm shelters for K12 schools, there are three things to consider—location, critical support systems, and operations and maintenance.

1. Location: A storm shelter may be free standing, attached to, or within a building. The ICC 500 focuses on flood elevation, but the location also needs to be carefully analyzed for adjacent building collapse, debris, and proximity. The IBC now also limits the travel distance to 1,000 feet from any building served by the shelter.

Basement-level shelters covered by more than 12 inches of soil do not need to be impact tested. However, a basement-level shelter with occupied floors above needs to be designed to withstand the collapse of the structure above. Any shelter that’s within a building’s fall zone would also need to resist the same.

In most schools, using either a portion of a classroom wing or the gymnasium as the storm shelter may work best to utilize space efficiently. There are many things to consider, including occupant density, access, sanitation facilities, and impact-protective systems (doors, window shutters.) Determining the right location for each project is not a one-size or location-fits-all scenario.

2. Critical support systems: Critical support systems are structures, equipment, and components required to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of occupants. A tornado shelter requires critical support systems for two hours, while a hurricane shelter requires 24 hours, including functioning toilets, hand-washing stations, a fire extinguisher, a place for a first-aid kit, lights on back-up or battery power, and ventilation.

If there’s a loss of power, Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) or a generator is required to maintain emergency lighting, any plumbing supply/waste systems or sump pumps, and mechanical ventilation. Natural ventilation is preferred since mechanical equipment is typically exterior and difficult to protect against winds up to 250 mph.

The most efficient shelters function as classrooms or gymnasiums when not in use as a shelter. Integrating the required sanitation facilities is often challenging, but the required number of fixtures is a fraction of what is required under the normal use of the space, whether a classroom or gym. Finding creative solutions will limit cost issues.

3. Operations and maintenance (O&M): Anything not considered life safety is user-defined, which may include communication systems, wireless access point, TV with cable connection, or a power charging station. Convenience outlets on back-up power serves these items. Consider providing a control room for shelter equipment and emergency supplies such as food and bottled water.

A Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) is required and responsible for local emergency planning. For a school, this may be a committee appointed by the school board. FEMA outlines several O&M considerations for shelters including staffing, roles and responsibilities, access and entry, lockdown, and several maintenance concerns. Go to

It’s important to note that O&M drives the design, and it is recommended owners form a collaborative planning team to help steer this process. Architects should work with their clients to help them understand how they intend to operate the shelter so desired features are incorporated.

Whether designing for 200 or 2,000 occupants, from elementary to high school, there is a lot to consider in addition to location, critical support systems, and O&M. The most important goal is to design a shelter to protect the occupants, while integrating all necessary components and features that meet the clients’ needs.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management October 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Daniel Dain is a licensed architect at Stantec with two decades of experience, providing architectural services in the education sector. He offers extensive knowledge in quality assurance and control as a quality management leader, oversees Stantec's Storm Shelter Advisory committee, and serves on the National Storm Shelter Association's Design Practices Committee.