Secure, Sustainable Schools

Is security green? Sometimes. Then again, it can be anti-green, but that can usually be fixed.

Both security and sustainability are important. Newtown and other school shootings make the case for security. The case for sustainability is strong, too. Estimates say that buildings produce 35 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S. and use 37 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. Sustainable design and construction can improve on that record.

The easiest way to integrate security and sustainability into a building is to incorporate both into the original design. “Retrofitting for security as well as sustainability can be done, but it is expensive,” says Dan O’Neill, senior vice president in the Boston offices of the San Diego-based TSG Solutions, Inc., a security-consulting, planning and training firm.

Assessing security and sustainability

A secure design begins with a security assessment that evaluates the numbers and kinds of crime in the area, as well as the kinds and severity of natural disasters prevalent in the region.

In the case of a school, a security assessment would also consider security problems common in schools. Bullying, for example, is a behavior that security cameras can help to combat. Similarly, cameras and access control policies and technologies can help to prevent a predator or disgruntled spouse from taking a child.

A sustainability assessment would consider the regional climate, the amount and kind of regional precipitation, prevailing winds and the angle of the sun in each of the seasons. This knowledge would help to guide the use of various sustainable design and construction techniques such as building orientation, solar panels, natural ventilation, daylighting, storm water collection and reuse as well as natural ventilation and an emerging technique called natural conditioning.

As designers work out a school building’s design, security needs and sustainable needs will sometimes support each other and sometimes conflict.

Sustainable security at the front door

Security and sustainability concepts can work to support each other at the main entrance to a school.

Think of an elementary school secured at the front door by a small vestibule with bulletproof glass. You enter through the outside door into the vestibule. The door closes behind you. Another locked door prevents you from entering the school just yet. A window in the sidewall looks into the vestibule from the main office.

A receptionist in the office uses an intercom to ask for your name and business. You place your driver’s license into a sliding drawer and the receptionist retrieves it. The receptionist checks the license and the photo and returns a visitor’s pass on an orange lanyard — visitors get orange lanyards while faculty, staff and students have different color lanyards. The receptionist clicks the door open and you enter the school. When you leave, you bring the lanyard back and trade it for your driver’s license.

To be sure, before and after school, one of the two sets of doors would probably remain open to facilitate the movement of many students in and out. Depending on the season, the open door would allow some heat or cooling to escape.

During the day, however, the entrance would be both secure and green. As visitors, faculty and staff move in and out of the school through the main entrance, one of the two sets of doors would always be closed, preventing energy waste.

Lighting conflicts

Sometimes it isn’t so easy. An electronic book called Security Design for Sustainable Buildings and Campuses, published by TSG Solutions, notes a conflict related to indoor lighting: “Security and safety call for constant lighting and minimal windows, while sustainability calls for minimal indoor lighting in order to conserve energy and maximal use of windows.”

The book, co-authored by O’Neill, Roger Rueda and Jenna Savage, suggests a couple of solutions. “Intelligent lighting controls enable you to manage indoor lighting efficiently,” says O’Niell. “For instance, occupancy sensors can be set to turn lights off when everyone leaves a room. Dimmers can also adjust the indoor lighting according to the availability of natural light.”

Outdoor lighting

Exterior lighting can also give rise to conflicts between security and sustainability.

Lighting, especially bright lighting, would deter crime at night — around school buildings and in parking lots. Trouble is, bright lighting at night bothers the neighbors, and schools residing in residential neighborhoods have plenty of neighbors. Lighting uses energy, too, and overly bright light wastes energy from a sustainable point of view.

The security side isn’t going to get bright exterior lighting, and the sustainability side isn’t going to get darkness and maximum energy conservation.

The indoor lighting techniques noted above can help outside, too. Dimming technology can turn down lights to match available light, perhaps from nearby streetlights and even from the moon on a clear night.

Designers can also light only the places that need to be lighted: entrances and parking lots on nights when events bring people to the school.

Parking lots

“Parking lots illustrate why it’s important to invite security to participate during the design of a school building,” says O’Neill. “School parking lots are large. Lighting up an entire parking lot on nights when there is a game or a community meeting isn’t necessary if the design of the parking lot enables closing sections of the lot and concentrating traffic in front of the key entrance or entrances. Then, you can light just those areas.”

Of course, school officials can have the parking lot set up to manage traffic this way even if it hasn’t been designed in. But it is usually confusing to drivers and expensive in terms of labor to set up. It will also affect the aesthetics. Better to design it in ahead of time.

Motion detection technology can help make exterior lighting more sustainable, too. Video cameras today can incorporate a sophisticated form of motion detection called video analytics, says O’Neill. Video analytics can identify patterns. For instance, it can identify objects of certain sizes — people and cars, for instance — when one or the other moves within the camera’s field of view.

With video analytics, parking lot lights can be kept low until, say, 7:45 p.m. when the first car arrives for the 8:00 p.m. community meeting in the cafeteria. When the car moves into the camera’s view, the lights, already on low so the camera can see, come up brightly.

Such an exterior lighting scheme has other uses, too. Suppose a couple of vandals show up late at night with the intention of doing damage. Cameras equipped with video analytics can be programmed to see them, turn the lights on full blast, record their movements and send an alarm to security. In most cases, the vandals will take off when the lights come on, inferring that someone has seen them.

Using security to save energy

Sometimes teachers come to school in the evening to prepare for the next day. As they drive up, the lights will come on. If there is a card access system at the school, a faculty member would enter the building by presenting an ID card to a reader at the entrance — to unlock the door.

Today, it is possible to enable access control technology to communicate with administrative databases, lighting controllers and heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems (HVAC). When this programming is carried out, the access control system can check records, find the number of the teacher’s classroom and its location. Next it can tell the lighting system to light the corridors leading to the classroom, while telling the HVAC system to turn on the heat or air conditioning in the classroom.

When the teacher swipes out, the access control system will give a command to turn off the lights and HVAC.

O’Neill notes that many organizations don’t require people to swipe out with a card to exit a building. “You can accomplish the same thing with motion sensors in corridors and offices to turn on the lights. Another set of motion sensors can turn on the HVAC in classrooms,” he says.

Either technique uses security technology to support sustainable building operations.

There are many other areas of school building design that combine security and sustainability techniques. For instance, security-oriented design would place fresh air intake vents high above the ground instead of at ground level. The security benefit is that height makes it much more difficult to poison a building’s air supply. At the same time, higher air is generally fresher and less likely to take in pollutants such as engine exhaust.

There are many other conflicts, too. But there is always a solution. Consider landscaping. While shrubbery and small trees next to a building are attractive, the security concern is that it creates places for muggers or predators to hide. In some schools, students hide weapons behind shrubbery growing along side of the school building.

The solution is to move the landscaping away from the building.

There is always a solution. 

Editor’s Note: authored by Dan O’Neill, Roger Rueda and Jenna Savage co-authored the TSG Solutions publication, Security Design for Sustainable Buildings and Campuses.


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