Better Buildings, Fewer Headaches

Have you ever seen a campus facility that is a design nightmare, with features that bothered you related to safety? No architect or campus official wants to be involved with the design and construction of a bad building, particularly if it is bad from a safety standpoint. There are some simple concepts that can enhance the design process to help reduce the chances that an unsafe facility is built. More architects are learning they can build better buildings, reduce civil liability, better satisfy their clients, and save clients money by using a safety design team approach. Taking a few extra steps can make the difference between a good building and a great one; it can also shave $50,000 to $500,000 off the cost of a new construction project while creating a more positive learning climate and reducing common headaches down the road.

Involve public safety officials in the design phase. A low-cost and often incredibly effective way to improve the design of a school is for the architect, building planning team, and faculty and department heads who will use the building to meet with safety, security, and police personnel as well as area public safety officials to discuss planning concepts early in the design phase. Having a fire-service professional, security professional, law enforcement officer, emergency management official, and a public health professional meet with the planning team early in the design phase as well as later in the process can make a dramatic difference in the level of safety for the finished building while significantly lowering the exposure to civil liability for the architect and the client. It is not uncommon to see a finished campus building that is dangerous, sometimes even incredibly dangerous, in a manner that would have been quickly spotted by local public safety officials. For example, we have seen campus buildings in areas of high tornado activity that lack any semblance of adequate severe weather sheltering space for staff and students. A professional emergency manager would rarely miss this type of oversight. Should a tornado ever strike an academic building of this type, an attorney won’t miss the defect either.

Parking flow. To build on this approach, also consider asking an officer from a local police department traffic division or the nearest state police barracks to help assess the proposed parking, pickup, and drop-off areas in conjunction with the facilities they serve. Careful thought and input from an experienced traffic officer can help highly skilled architects improve their concepts.

Use design checklists. There are a variety of school design checklists that can help avert simple but troublesome design flaws, such as easy rooftop access. The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities ( has a detailed checklist, and Safe Havens International offers a more concise school safety design checklist at Though these checklists are geared to K-12 schools, they have proven to be helpful to design teams working on higher education projects as well.

Contract for an independent design review. There are a number of highly qualified CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) experts who can review building designs to give a second opinion to the primary architect and planning team. While this is expensive, it is still often money well spent and will almost always result in significant design enhancements.

Train a team on safe school design. Have a local team trained by top experts in concepts such as CPTED, Second Generation CPTED, and a newer design and usage concept developed by Tod Schneider called SHAPED – Safe Healthy and Positive Environmental Design. A team of facilities personnel, technology technicians, grounds personnel, university police or security officers, campus administrators, and architects can be provided interactive training sessions with practical exercises on these concepts. This type of training helps the organization and the architects develop long-term internal capabilities to incorporate these concepts into existing facilities as well as new construction projects.

The Future

An increasing number of educational organizations are learning how they can significantly improve school designs through this type of team approach. Savvy architects are learning they can reduce their civil liability while improving client satisfaction, thus making their firms more competitive through a willingness to engage in meaningful collaboration with some non-traditional partners in the design process. The team approach to safe school design is not only good for the safety of students, faculty, staff, and visitors; it is smart business. Use it to build better buildings.

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens Website at

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at