Redesigning Sandy Hook After Newtown's Tragedy

The building has three classroom wings that extend into the landscape like fingers. Two of the wings end in treehouse-inspired meeting rooms
Courtesy Svigals + Partners

There are some comforting features in the design of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, which will rise on the now-cleared site of the 2012 Newtown, Conn., school shooting. A softly curving wooden facade poses an inviting welcome for students, who, once inside, can peer out of generous classroom windows to the surrounding forest. Three classroom wings extend outward like fingers to create three courtyards, and two of the wings end in elevated treehouse-like breakout spaces. Many of these design touches are not just wonderful, though: They mask enhanced security measures that give the school added protection against intruders. “The trick,” says Jay Brotman, a partner at Svigals, “was to make it more secure while balancing those things that make a school wonderful.”

Courtesy Svigals + Partners

The school structure, slated for completion in September 2016, will surround teachers and students in barely perceptible barriers to entry that could help them detect trouble before it happens. “The more layers a person has to get through,” says project manager Julia McFadden, “the more time you’ve bought yourself.”
 
Brotman and McFadden spoke to Bloomberg Businessweek about some of the architectural features of the new Sandy Hook that can be built into new schools to help guard against security threats.

Courtesy Svigals + Partners

Establish a perimeter. At Sandy Hook, the architects sited the school far back from the road and the surrounding wooded area so teachers and students can spot suspicious people as they approach. That’s not always possible in urban areas, where lots are tight and buildings abut the curb line. In that case, they say, a school’s exterior should be “hardened” with force-resistant windows, access controls, and cameras.

Create a landscaping buffer between the drop-off point and the entrance. A rain garden spans the entire facade of the school. Not only does it capture water that would ordinarily go down the drain, but it creates a barrier between the grounds and the building. To get into the school, people must traverse one of the bridges corresponding to each of its three entryways. Anyone trying to enter the building without crossing a bridge will have to walk through the garden—an automatic red flag.

Courtesy Svigals + Partners

Position the windows strategically. The Svigals team figured out a way to provide lots of windows—and the daylight essential for well-being—without sacrificing security. The designers lowered the height of the ground outside and placed the force-resistant-glass windows about two-and-a-half feet above the floor, which affords enough clearance should kids and adults have to duck below them.
Install vehicular gates.
Although the gates can be open during typical drop-off and pickup times, they should be tightly regulated and patrolled during off-peak hours.

Layer security at entry points. Visitors must be screened through the intercom system before they enter the security vestibule, where they will have to be checked in by school personnel. “Nobody gets in unless they’re an approved visitor,” Brotman says. As an added layer of security, the designers placed a set of doors at each of the school wings. “Even if someone had reached the vestibule and were in the building, [the school] could activate the next set of doors to close to prevent access to the critical classroom areas,” McFadden says.

Make the classrooms secure by default. The classroom doors have dead bolts that automatically lock when closed but release to a student or teacher trying to leave the room. During a lockdown emergency, any doors that are propped open will be triggered electronically to swing shut. The doors have side windows to maintain sight lines in and out of the classroom. “Closing classrooms off from the corridors is not a good solution any time,” Brotman says.

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