Guest Column: Bringing Security Design Home

Page Southerland Page principals James Wright and Thomas McCarthy discuss how modern embassy design elements can benefit today's commercial buildings.

The current generation of U.S. embassies and their related support facilities are designed to physical and technical security standards in keeping with the unfortunate state of elevated and unpredictable threat levels we all live with to one degree or another in today’s world. Most of the technical parameters relating to security design are considered sensitive if not classified information, but there is a great deal of what we do in designing the modern embassy that is universally applicable and transportable back to the United States—not only for new domestic federal government facilities but even for the general commercial markets.

This is not to suggest that once the development markets return we can expect to routinely see blast-resistant hardened structures, anti-terrorism/force protection-rated window and door assemblies, chemical-biological threat mitigation in the mechanical systems or the ability for full functional operation off the grid, as is the case with our new embassy compounds. But the wise developer or commercial building owner should give more than a passing nod to how new facilities could be planned to respond as needed to a set of circumstances not given much consideration in years past.

In the Washington, D.C., metro area and other cities across the country where the federal government maintains a sizable leased office presence, this connection is obvious. As governments in general shift from owned to leased space (or space that is procured via competitive design-build-leaseback or -sale deals), enhanced security is bound to prevail in the lease criteria. Prescribed stand-off distances from uncontrolled vehicles, site-perimeter access control, glass-retaining film membranes and structural progressive-collapse preventive design are already staples of most new federal office facilities, regardless of who owns them or where they are located.

As the line between traditional government employees and outsourced operations blurs, this criteria is extending into the government subcontracting market, thereby potentially encompassing a much greater number of facilities across the country. (For a more complete description of current domestic federal government design criteria, go to the U.S. General Services Administration Web site and download The Site Security Design Guide. More detailed information is available in the GSA Public Buildings Service P100 Facilities Standards.)

The evolving threat is not only related to the increasing interest in reducing the number of soft targets available to terrorists but to industrial espionage. Given the sheer number of possible targets, it may be hard to imagine a terrorist striking at your heartland commercial office building. However, it should not be so hard to imagine a startup technology tenant shopping leases or build-to-suits on the basis of how their options compare from a securability perspective.

Despite the fact that general crime and vandalism continue to be social ills present virtually everywhere, designing in the ability of buildings and their sites to help offset such a threat seems to be a lost art. Most of the last generation of architects encountered Oscar Newman’s Creating Defensible Space somewhere in their academic careers—pretty basic stuff about not designing unsupervisable spaces as potential settings for bad things to happen—but how often today is a commercial office building design evaluated with this in mind prior to finalization? (Newman’s book, which largely applied to new housing developments, is a free download from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Web site.)

Take the typical suburban office park. The smart developer will direct its architect to test the proposed building siting for stand-off clearances from property boundaries and vehicles. Sometimes, sites are sized such that with plan adjustments a building can be positioned in accordance with anti-terrorism guidelines. But this is not usually the case. The crush is on to provide as much surface parking as possible, but in siting the building and configuring the parking, wouldn’t it be wise to do so in a way that would sacrifice only one parking bay instead of two if at some point that stand-off distance were to become critical?

Certain corporate office users took such an approach in the 1980s, when they realized that new facilities needed to be planned with an exit strategy in mind: no more sprawling corporate palaces; instead, they sought to include entrances and building core layouts that would facilitate potential subleases. Today, in addition to exit strategies, we think about security strategies.

And regardless of the perceived potential for future tenants seeking facility security criteria, it is good sense to design main entrance lobbies such that the access control station has a clear line of site to both entrances and elevators. A little foresight in running empty conduit to floor outlets is a relatively inexpensive way to accommodate card readers and turnstiles in lieu of multiple manned guard stations. The same applies to potential camera locations inside and out in order to avoid tearing up expensive finishes for retro-installations. As for the beloved covered drop-off, a few strategically placed, attractively clad bollards designed to anti-ram standards could prevent a tragedy caused by a disgruntled employee—or a stuck gas pedal.

We work very hard in the design of U.S. embassies to make the security measures as unobtrusive as possible. With the softer applications we are proposing for commercial buildings, that goal is even more readily attainable. A bit of forethought can provide for more occupancy options down the road, while offering a degree of enhanced safety in the meantime.

James M. Wright, AIA, and Thomas McCarthy, AIA, LEED AP, are principals with the architectural and engineering firm Page Southerland Page L.L.P. Just prior to the prolonged economic retrenchment that has so negatively impacted the commercial real estate development markets, the Washington, D.C., office Wright and McCarthy lead found exceptionally fertile ground as the design partner in U.S. federal government design-build contracts. The greatest volume of this work has been through the Department of State’s Office of Overseas Building Operations’ capital security construction program. They are currently working on the design of their 20th diplomatic compound since 2002—in all totaling about $2.5 billion in design-build contract value.