Building security through architecture and urban planning


First of three parts

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
-GEORGESANTAYANA (1863–1952), Spanish philosopher

“Oh yes, the past can hurt. But you can either run from it, or learn from it.”
– Rafiki, from
The Lion King

President Obama’s overdue visit to the Philippines coincided with the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a new security pact that heralds a new era in Philippine-US bilateral alliance. The US, perhaps, has one of the most developed planning, design, and construction strategies toward building security in the world, brought about by 9/11.

What they did was use the technical data from past man-made and natural disaster events and let it serve as building performance case studies. What they learned from these studies, they improved on and applied to their future building developments. They studied why buildings failed, and how they can make them safer.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines’ strategic location has made it a perfect military and geopolitical target of many countries. With the imminent terrorism and security threats to our country, how can we make our buildings, communities, and cities a safer, secure place to live in?

In Barbara Nadel’s rather long but comprehensive book Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design, three underlying themes are highlighted throughout the book, reflecting the concept that security and good design are compatible, essential elements in the built environment: Learning from the past, integrating the approach, and planning carefully for each situation.

After 9/11, I went back to the Harvard University Graduate School of Design to continue my studies in architecture and urban planning, and Security by Design was one of the topics discussed back then, even among my peers in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Planning Association (APA), Urban Land Institute (ULI), and Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Here are some of the lessons I learned from her book and classes at Harvard which I’d like to share with everyone in the hope of helping others realize the importance of building security through architecture and urban planning.

Lessons learned from 1993 and 2001
Among some of the eye-opening lessons architects, planners, engineers and security professionals learned from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was the revision of the location of emergency building facilities and its underground parking. Just like depicted in numerous terrorist-themed movies where villains leave a car full of C-4 at a targeted building’s underground parking lot, a truck bomb exploded on the second underground level of the World Trade Center’s parking garage. The blast produced a 150-feet wide crater five floors deep. Biological and safety hazards in the form of ruptured water and sewage pipes put responders and rescue teams at risk. Since the building’s primary and secondary systems were located underground, it took a longer time to get the systems up and running again.

After the bombing, all building entries had checkpoints and required identification. Moreover, all evacuation procedures were changed to guarantee more people to exit the building faster. Loudspeakers, emergency lights, intercom systems, reflector exit lighting, and practice drills every six months were added to the procedure. Because of this, writes Nadel, many building occupants were able to exit from the towers within an hour after the planes hit on 9/11. As for the underground parking and emergency generator locations, the Center’s underground parking was limited to prescreened tenants and preauthorized deliveries at designated access points, while the emergency systems were located above grade. 9/11 also provided an important case study in terms of structural system performance. Even after getting hit by the planes, the buildings held to its foundations for an hour, allowing thousands of people in and within the vicinity of the WTC to evacuate to safer ground.

Another major terrorist event, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, where another truck bomb exploded in front of the Alfred Murrah Federal building, killing 168 people and injuring thousands, became a pivotal point in developing security guidelines for hardening buildings against blasts and other terrorist threats. The guidelines, more commonly known as The Marshals Report, evaluated security measures and classified the risks for all federal buildings.

It also marked the beginning of a national, industry wide approach to security planning and building design to combat terrorism. From vehicular circulation, standoff distance (building setbacks that mitigate truck bomb damage), blast resistant exteriors, glazing systems, to structural engineering design, these were all researched and evaluated.

Regardless of building type and function, lobbies provide visitors with their first impressions of an organization and facility. Federal building lobbies are the initial line of defense against terrorism and violence directed at the government, federal employees, and the public. Security screening and metal detectors installed within federal facilities after the 1995 bombing were enhanced after 9/11. Important design elements reviewed included entrances, separation of entrance and exit paths, adequate queuing space, the “free”zone (space between an exterior plaza and secure interior areas), screening station locations, arrangement, and operations; metal detectors and x-ray machines, and the secure area, which starts immediately after visitors pass through the security station.

(To be continued with Part 2 next Thursday)


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  1. Leonard M. Herrera on

    My former boss…my mentor….Your the best sir! More power to you!