January 24, 2019, I was in my last semester of architecture school at Penn State, and enjoying a band in downtown State College when my friend got an eerie text. “There’s a shooter downtown, please be safe.” At first, we didn’t know if the warning was real, as we did not receive a University phone alert about the situation. And, no police report could be found on the internet. It was our group chats that allowed us to realize what was happening. Four people were killed that night.
This was not considered a “school shooting” because it happened off Penn State’s campus, but I did experience a small glimpse of what 187,000 students have faced since the horrific 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Columbine, and the school shootings that have continued since are why I had lock-down drills in school every year starting in kindergarten. Now, 46 weeks into 2019, there has been a total of 45 separate school shootings in America, according to CNN. This includes elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as universities. Political beliefs aside, we can agree change is needed.
One of the fundamentals of architecture is to protect the public health, safety and general welfare of building occupants. This refers to our building codes and addresses areas such as egress in case of fire, accessibility, structural integrity, etc. With the reality of gun violence in our county, should architects be responsible for designing an environment that protects occupants from possible shootings?
When responding to the issue of gun violence against students, the first thought may be to have bag checks, more cameras, and armed guards, etc. But, architecture is about unconventional solutions. The solution to this problem is not to turn every school in America into a Panopticon*. This would be an effective solution regarding safety, but does not lead to an environment that fosters learning, creativity, and self-growth.
*A Panopticon is a type of institutional building (primarily used in prisons) that is a system of control design that allows for a single security guard to observe every inmate while also concealing the security guard from the inmates.
The new Sandy Hook Elementary School designed by Svigals + Partners is a great example of looking towards a solution in architecture. While working with DVS Security Consulting, they came up with a 3-step security approach: hardened architectural elements, technology, and operational strategies. The hardened architectural elements were designed carefully to conceal the security measures. The school yard has a rain garden that can be used as a barricade, laminated glass was used for greater resistance to impact. Strategic sightlines were implemented to keep the classrooms at a higher elevation allowing students to be invisible from the ground, while also allowing for better vision of the lower public spaces. The hallways are slightly curved which breaks up the line of sight. The hallways also have intermittent wing walls that allow for more hiding spaces. All design choices work towards safety, without taking away from a beautiful building that fosters learning and creativity. The next step was technology. The building has a series of fire doors that can be closed and locked to isolate an attacker. There is a network of cameras and lighting that respond to movement that can alert the school of suspicious behavior. The last step was operational strategies, like trained emergency response personnel and continued education for best safety practices.
Gun violence in schools is a complex social issue that goes beyond curved walls. The Sandy Hook Elementary School design is not the solution, but it is a step towards reframing the architecture conversation of educational institutions. Architecture will not be able to solve gun violence, but it can be an important piece in saving lives. As architects we must always be thinking about the purpose of our design and how it addresses the needs and challenges of the building user. As society changes, so must architecture.
Hannah Helmes, Architectural Designer