Designing to deter attacks - The Sandy Hook case study

Landscape architects are playing a growing role in helping protect the public against terrorist attacks. Raised planters, street furniture, vegetation, water features and bollards can all be strategically placed to enhance security, protecting against car bombs or vehicles plowing into pedestrians.

And with mass shootings at schools on the rise in America the landscape architect’s palette of features increasingly needs to be incorporated into school design too. Take the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, scene of one of the deadliest school massacres in the world. The buildings were demolished after the 2012 shootings which killed 20 students and six staff.  A new school opened on the site in 2016, with landscape architects Richter & Cegan one of the companies charged with making the new campus environmentally friendly, attractive, conducive to learning and above all, safe.

 The front of the rebuilt Sandy Hook school - photo credit Mikey Vasquez.

The front of the rebuilt Sandy Hook school - photo credit Mikey Vasquez.

“One of the first questions when you sit down with any school is ask what level of security do you want to entertain,” Richter & Cegan partner, Bill Richter told Landscape Architecture Aotearoa. “Of course with Sandy Hook it was critical. One of the main goals was to make the security measures as disguised as possible.”

So how do you create a fortress without it looking like one? Innovative thinking and a collaborative approach, says Bill Richter. He’s very proud of the level of co-operation between his firm, architects Svigals + Partners, and a New York security group when designing the new school. Because of the sensitivity of the project (some felt strongly that the new school shouldn’t be built on the same site) a series of workshops was held with the community - with separate ones organised with the families of those who died - to ensure the new school was sympathetic to their concerns and needs.

 The Sandy Hook rebuild site plan

The Sandy Hook rebuild site plan

Security features now begin as soon as you enter the school’s long driveway, which has been rerouted through two wetland areas, creating a natural barrier against unwanted visitors. A gate at the entrance to the parking lot acts as a checkpoint, with segregated parking diverting visitors from staff members and parents dropping children off. A bus loop in front of the school provides yet another buffer space between the school’s entrance and the outside world. All landscaping is done to ensure anyone approaching is visible to those inside.

To get into the buildings everyone has to walk across one of three footbridges over a moat-like rain garden, past security officers and a video monitoring system. And while the rain garden itself isn’t much of a barrier Richter says anyone running across it will attract attention.

 The "moat".

The "moat".

“We affectionately call it the moat,” he says. “It collects rainwater from the roof so we can run water through bioswale into the garden. During a heavy rainstorm we can have a foot of water running through there.” The garden is also used for teaching.

Richter says the land immediately surrounding the building is slightly lower than the grade of the building itself. “It was about creating enough grade changes so that someone could not just walk up to a window unnoticed.” And anyone trying to shoot into a classroom through a window would be standing in a hole, unable to shoot straight at desk height.

Windows are coated with a special hardened glaze so that even if shot at, it would take an attacker 10 to 15 minutes with a sledgehammer to make a hole big enough to crawl through. The design is all about deterrence and buying time for help to arrive should the worst happen.

 The school's new courtyard.

The school's new courtyard.

The building itself is shaped like a curving bar with public spaces - like the library and administration offices - on one side, and private spaces - like the classrooms on the other. That way the private spaces, on the inside of the curve,  are protected by the shape of the building.

Richter says that in some instances security solutions had to literally be created because they didn’t already exist. Access to playgrounds and sports fields at the back of the site are all electronically controlled during school hours. A product was made to allow for that and will now be available for use by other schools in the country.

Sandy Hook School courtyard_2.jpg

A school security guide for Connecticut was developed as Sandy Hook was being rebuilt, and there’s no doubt the school will be one of the country’s most watched case studies in terms of security.

Richter says it’s impossible to stop every kind of attack but making any space as safe as possible should be a part of every landscape architects' thinking. As far as Sandy Hook goes he says “we invested a lot of our time and life during the process to getting it done. I think we did the best job as a design team for the community. It (the finished school) was a success from day one. It was a very tough process at certain points but everyone was very open to making things work. What we’ve achieved is a real testament to everyone who worked on it.”