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Can ‘hardening’ our schools keep our kids safe?

Can walls and barriers alone solve a problem as multifaceted as gun violence and mass shootings?

In the wake of the Parkland shooting and the March for Our Lives movement, the question of school safety has gotten renewed focus. The president’s calls to “harden our schools” has ignited debates about the cost and efficacy of applying design solutions to protect students.

But for architects and designers, what does “hardening” our schools really mean? Is the solution for keeping kids safe fortress-like standards pushed by the NRA?

Architect Julia McFadden has wrestled with questions of school safety, and the delicate balance between environmental design and educational philosophy. As an associate principal at Svigals + Partners, McFadden was a lead designer for the highly publicized redesign of Sandy Hook Elementary, the site of the Newtown school shooting in 2012.

Curbed spoke with McFadden about the issue of safety and design post-Parkland, and how the lessons she learned while working on Sandy Hook are still applicable today. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

You hear this term “hardening schools” being thrown around. What does that mean to you, and what does that process entail?

The term is specific to the security industry, so hopefully school officials and politicians know what they mean when they use this term. I learned about it from our security consultant at Sandy Hook. It refers to a greater level of impenetrability of physical elements, such as wall and doors.

Windows can be hardened with ballistics-level glass. Walls are hardened with materials that make them harder to physically break through or penetrate. There’s a blast-resistant sheetrock. You can add concrete block or stone to a wall to increase its hardness. There’s a similar term that’s also used in the security industry, crush resistant, that may be what many people are referencing. It refers to the length of time a wall or a door can withstand an assault before you’re able to break through or gain entry.

Have there been significant examples of schools built with this level of security in mind?

I’ve heard of other school districts that have been increasing the hardness of certain elements of their buildings. But there isn’t a national clearinghouse or anybody tracking how schools have been responding. Sandy Hook school is still probably the prime example of this kind of project.

Sandy Hook Elementary School
The entrance to Sandy Hook Elementary School
Town of Newtown

How did you define safety when working on Sandy Hook? What was your goal?

Our goal for safety, which we discussed with the community, was to build a school that would withstand the same type of assault. There was a certain level of design, and hardening features, that we included that I wouldn’t think would be appropriate across the board at all schools. I hope we’re not headed in that direction, but we’ll see how the discussion goes over the next few years.

Why would you not want schools to be designed to that standard?

In order to harden to that level while keeping a certain level of openness, there’s a very big tradeoff in openness and a premium in cost. I think that’s a big burden that takes away from the primary focus of schools, which is education. Dollars go to the physical structure, rather than what’s happening inside them.

Touring Sandy Hook last year, it seemed like a very light-filled, happy place to learn. I can see how that level of safety, and that kind of atmosphere, could be expensive. Can you provide the cost of the security upgrade?

We were never able to determine the exact premium for the hardening features. The project met the budget, and the school didn’t use all of its $50 million grant. But in general, school construction in Connecticut is pretty expensive compared to, say, a school district in rural Kentucky. That’s setting a standard in an affluent area that isn’t fair to schools that can’t afford the expense of hardened glass. Other schools may have to choose to have little or no openness in their design. They’ll have solid doors without windows to meet the hardening requirements, since it’s less expensive.

When you start designing school for this sort of security applications, is there a danger that people will start promoting the idea that we can solve this issue through design and construction, as opposed to better mental health care, gun control, and other actions?

Yes, there is a danger in doing that. You can’t solve these problems with just physical design. It has to be a multifaceted approach.

Even in the design of Sandy Hook school, we weren’t relying on just physical elements. There was technology in the form of video security and cameras, doors with alarms that linked back to the central security office. Operations and training with first responders is equally important. These are critical aspects of safer school design. But yes, there are larger issues and policy questions. Anti-bullying programs, access to mental health, and gun control all play a part in making schools safer.

Has there been a larger conversation in the architecture industry about designing for school safety?

There hasn’t. Certainly we’ve given some talks, and there’s been some discussion. But I’m not sure it’s gotten to an organized level, like the AIA issuing positions that they’re promoting. I think it’s an issue that’s really only seen movement since Sandy Hook, and will probably gain steam now as well.

Has your firm gotten lots of inquiries about this type of work?

There was a lull before Parkland, when inquiries had tapered off. Now that Parkland happened, things have picked up again. We haven’t had a chance to sit back and reflect on what role can we take in this. We were just an average architecture firm before Sandy Hook, and weren’t experts going into that job. I don’t know I’d say we’re experts now. I think we’ve gained expertise. There aren’t certifications for designing safe schools.

You once compared architecture to designing a set for a play. Ideally, what kind of set do you want to design for students?

With Sandy Hook School, we proved to ourselves and others we could design to a certain safety standard and also include what we think is important. Schools should have a sense of welcoming, be cheerful to approach, have a sense of fun and play. It should focus on biophilic design that incorporates or exemplifies nature.

It’s important to both students as well as the adults who teach in school; we as humans are a lot happier when we’re reminded of the natural world.