IIW Minnesota

3 Ways Design Can Make Buildings Safer


Each day, hundreds of students walk into schools and thousands of other community members walk through grocery stores, banks and other buildings. Above all, we want them to be safe and we don’t take that for granted. That’s why we appreciate the expertise of Carol Martinson, a crime prevention expert with more than 40 years of risk assessment and security experience working with the likes of Target, Supervalu, and Lund’s and Byerly’s and more recently, schools. She shares the key principles that make a building safer in this blog. – David Leapaldt


Have you ever walked into a building and just felt uncomfortable? Like something didn’t feel right? We all have – and if we can, we avoid places like that. The design of a space affects how we feel and behave. It can make you feel welcome and relaxed, or anxious and on guard.

Detail of building entranceWe actually can manipulate an environment to impact behavior positively. The idea first emerged in the 1970s in public housing neighborhoods to prevent crime and build community. Today, those same principles are being applied to retail spaces, workplaces and our local schools.

I recently had the opportunity to talk about crime prevention through environmental design at a forum for Sartell Public Schools. School leaders brought together teachers, administrators and school board members with local law enforcement and firefighters for a conversation on security design for the school district’s new high school.

Incidents in schools, from Rocori to Sandy Hook, have prompted more leaders to explore what they can do to further promote safety in their spaces. While the principles date back 40 years, they have gained more attention and are applied more broadly since the release of Tim Crowe’s book, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, in the early 90s.

Here’s a look at what they are and how they impact design:

  • Natural Access Control
    This focuses on creating a well-defined entrance that is clean, clear and approachable. That includes smooth pathways without concerns about trees or large bushes, good lighting and signage. From the parking lot, people should see exactly where they need to go and be greeted when they walk through the doors.In schools, that means locating the administrative offices with a centralized check-in system by the main entrance for visitors, parents and most, if not all, students. Schools can choose to have students who travel by bus to use another door during designated times. All other students enter and exit through the main entrance.During my days working in the grocery industry, I often wondered why some stores had two or three entrances. How do you “wow” a customer with that many entrances?
  • Natural Surveillance
    Natural surveillance emphasizes visibility. The key is to create spaces that allow people on the inside to see out. The farther you can see, the better chance you’ll see trouble and the quicker you can respond. In schools, we encourage glass even though it may seem counterintuitive. Yes, glass means people can see in. It also means teachers and other staff can see out.When designing facilities with this principle in mind, we also focus on implementing clean landscaping that can be maintained. To foster safety, the rule of thumb is keep bushes shorter than 4 feet and trees trimmed up 6 feet from the ground. This is often the area organizations fall short.Lighting strategies come into play here, too. The lighting does not need to be bright. It just needs to be consistent.
  • Territorial Reinforcement
    Have you marked your territory? In many ways, this principle reflects patterns we see among animals in the wild. It’s important for organizations to clearly define ownership of their property so people know the moment they enter the property.This often is achieved through a layering effect that may include fencing, signage, pavement, and landscaping. It begins with establishing the perimeter from the street and flows into the parking area and pathways to the front entrance.In schools, this often leads to staff and teachers parking in back and creating defined parking areas for students, parents and guests at the front of the building near the main entrance.This principle carries into sensitive spaces within the facility, too. For a school, that may be the nurse’s office or technology area. In retail spaces, it means locating and layering around the cash vault. Pharmacies, for example, should be located in the middle or back of a retail space with walls that go to the roof to prevent unauthorized access.

We can make intentional design decisions to impact how people react in a space. Those choices can prevent crime, increase safety and improve community.


martinson_small2Carol A. Martinson is a corporate security, asset protection, and risk management executive with multiple industry experience. Carol’s most recent ventures include being president of Intentional Security Design, which focuses on good security design that creates and sustains safe, secure and profitable environments. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, she was the Vice President of Asset Protection for Supervalu, Inc.; Risk Management Director for Lund Food Holdings, Inc.; Assets Protection Director for Target, Inc., and Vice President of Corporate Security for First Bank System.