Walking past visible security measures, such as cameras or an office lobby guard, can be a reassuring reminder that your workplace prioritizes safety. At the same time, installing metal detectors or bulletproof glass can introduce an unnecessary level of anxiety. Office security toes a fine line between remaining visible enough to provide deterrence and confidence while staying unobtrusive enough to avoid escalating fear, and architects play a crucial role in integrating these discreet security measures into office architecture and landscape.
Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson explored this delicate balance between safeguards and satisfying aesthetics in a 2016 article entitled Designing for Security. “Security is as much about perception as it is about reality, and cultural anxiety often influences building design,” she wrote. Those anxious influences all too often lead to highly fortified, defensive buildings that, while functional, look more intimidating than welcoming, which can be a problem for employees that want to feel comfortable while they’re at work.
One approach to security integration is called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), which was developed by a network of building security-focused architects and planners as a set of best practices for industry professionals. Dr. Randy Atlas, FAIA, one of the preeminent spokespeople in the CPTED realm, lists the biggest sources of security issues in office buildings as access control, boundary definition, surveillance, maintenance, and management competence.
“Access control and territoriality are first and second because you want control and accountability of who has access to the property, the building, and the office spaces. Without that, all else fails,” Atlas wrote in an email. “Surveillance is important by providing the ability to see who is coming and going onto the property, the building common area spaces, and into the offices. Management [and maintenance] practices insure payment of the bills to have the electricity and utilities in clean, working order.”
“The more employees know about security features, the more comfortable they’ll feel.” - Steve Keller, founder of Architect's Security Group
Good office security design begins well before you enter the building, starting with its surrounding landscape. A key factor to secure environmental design is lighting that allows workers to feel safe at all hours. “People feel uncomfortable if they arrive early or leave late without adequate lighting,” says Steve Keller, founder of Architect’s Security Group. “Lighting should silhouette intruders against the face of a building.”
Through his work, Keller has found that integrating security measures early in the design process leads to better results, especially in terms of landscape strategies. This extends right down to the plant palette: In local projects, Keller recommends palmetto palm (Sabal etonia) as ground-cover for its thorny stiffness, which helps to restrict people’s movement to designated pathways. From a broader perspective, decisions such as winding roads that force slower approach speeds, along with concrete planters and benches that double as bollards, are tools in Keller’s arsenal of security designs.
Within offices themselves, visible security treatments like cameras augment integrated—and often invisible—measures. Networked door locking systems, for example, can detect when a single-door lock is activated in a designated lockdown mode and then issue a network-wide lockdown that effectively closes all doors. Hotkeys at workstations can be programmed to activate embedded webcams in emergencies, allowing security personnel visual access to potential situations. Sensors that detect activity and issue location-based text alerts are also becoming more common in larger projects.
Perhaps the greatest overall feelings of safety in workplaces come from knowing that surveillance is prevalent. Environmental and landscape design that elevates a building while reducing potential blind spots also contributes to a better sense of security. “Sometimes we provide more lighting than is necessary,” Keller admits. “Our idea is that we’re reducing risk, but it also affects the perception people have that they’re safe. The more employees know about security features, the more comfortable they’ll feel.”
Visible security features draw benefit from their deterrent effects, but also potentially raise anxiety levels. The earlier in the design process an architect begins to integrate security features, the more unobtrusive they can be, so that office workers can feel like they’re at a home away from home.
About the author: Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, is a writer and architectural photographer based in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Brutalist DC and the former associate editor of design for Architect Magazine.