Exclusive: How are schools designed to keep students safe?

Leading architecture firm takes KPRC behind design process

CYPRESS, Texas – For many families, school safety is a top priority.

KPRC gets an exclusive look at how a local leading architecture firm designs schools to keep students safe and how recent school shootings affect the way they think about school safety.

Shawn Jones has a seemingly simple expectation when her daughter leaves for school each morning.

"When you put your kid on the bus and you drop them off, you just want to make sure they're fine and that you're going to see them at the end of the day," said Jones, whose daughter goes to Cypress Park High School.

However, safety in schools does not come easy.

"Once you come into the main entrance (there should be) a secure vestibule right at the front door -- that's very important," said PBK director of design, Richard Chi.

Designing schools to be safe and secure

PBK Architects Inc. is a leading architecture firm based in Houston. It leads in designing schools and has designed and built most of the schools in the Greater Houston area with hundreds of awards for its designs, especially related to school safety.

"It's not just natural disasters anymore. You're dealing with intruders that might come from different backgrounds and we really have to involve the experts that can come in and help us design," Chi said.

"We're not experts on safety and security, but we know how to bring the experts from all over the place to help us build the most effective designs and best practices."

PBK partner, Ian Powell, said school shootings always affect their work as, the firm is constantly thinking and re-envisioning how to create spaces that keep students safe.

"Every school we work with is intentionally reassessing their circumstances and the way they react to safety and security," Powell said. "It's an ongoing conversation and each district establishes for themselves to what degree they want to layer that safety and security.

Chi and Powell said they work hand-in-hand with chiefs of police, security and schools to create schools that are functional, secure and balance a warm, welcoming environment while remaining safe.
PBK designed schools for HISD, Klein, Spring, Katy among several other ISDs including Cy-Fair. PBK designed Cypress Park High School. Cypress Fairbanks ISD's Chief Operations Officer Roy Sprague led a tour with Powell, Cy-Fair ISD's police Chief Eric Mendez and Cypress Park High School Principal Chris Hecker.

Sprague said no one can enter the school at the main entrance without being seen from hundreds of feet away. Powell said the company intentionally put a window showing the entrance right next to the receptionist's desk. The main entrance is clear and visible with glass that is glazed and bullet resistant.

Every employee has a key card to scan in multiple times. 

"We have card readers. We also have card reader devices on both sets of doors in the vestibule," he said.

Guests must go through the receptionist and cannot get into the school without the receptionists' approval.

Intentionality in design: Everything has a purpose

Intentionality is a key component and a basic mindset of how architects make decisions during the design process.

"What that speaks to is the desire to take circumstances, plan for them and then to develop responses, not just for security but also for instructional purposes as well that provide an intentional way of delivering instruction, delivering security, delivering innovation -- all these things -- is to script a design response that speaks to each of those issues," said Powell.

The open sight windows and secure vestibule access is one example, Powell said. 

"One of the most important things we can do intentionally with respect to design is to provide the occupants of the building a way to use time to their advantage. The goal is to identify the potential of a threat and to be able to react to it and communicate it properly to increase and delay the time for the person who is trying to do harm and to shorten the amount of time for first responders and emergency staff to be able to react," Powell said.

"All the different security measures you put into place, buys precious time for our students to ensure their safety, to ensure a proper law enforcement response," Cy-Fair ISD's police Chief Eric Mendez said.

Cypress Park High School is a lead example of this, according to PBK.

The school has bullet resistant glass and glazing, security cameras that officials can access anywhere at any time and a lockdown button in several locations should a shooter enter the building. 

Students and staff are trained and practice drills regularly, said Hecker.

"Whenever you're faced with an emergency situation, you go back to your training," Hecker said.

"Close the curtains. Lock all  doors. Hide," said student Leah Thompson, Jones' daughter.

Even the environmental design works as a safety component. The building is built in a curve shape. The inside portion of the building is a secured, outside play and learning area. The elementary school will also be built to complete the circle of buildings so that the outdoor area is enclosed by buildings.

"The building's shape acts as a natural barrier. It protects a safe and secure internal learning environment," said Sprague.

Active vs. passive elements of design

The building shape is an example of a passive way of designing that adds to serving the students in a way that promotes safety. 

Architects use active and passive elements of design to accomplish clients' needs. 

"A passive way would provide barriers that someone has to walk through an active way might be something that would be triggered by an observation that causes for example someone to push a panic button which calls first responders," said Powell.

However, the building does not look like a high-security penitentiary. Powell and Chi said design is all about balance and taste.

"(Cypress Park High School) is very open. It's very well lit -- you see a lot of daylight  filtering, though, at the same time this is a highly secure environment," said Powell.


Hardware designers are coming up with technology to help architects in their design processes. One locally based company, BEST Access Solutions -- Dormakaba, designs technology that specializes in building safety.

"I've been traveling a lot these last couple weeks and a lot of meetings are happening with school officials and local police," said BEST Access Solutions regional sales manager, Hector Vallejo. "A lot of conversations are about assessing current protocols and lots of different technologies that have to do with safety."

Dormakaba has a door lock called, "Shelter," which allows teachers or the user to lock down a room or building with the press of a button, all under 10 seconds.

"The shelter program was developed right after Sandy Hook (by our former parent company) ... They proceeded to get our R&D development group in the office the next day and said we are going to work on this project until we find an affordable platform to lockdown schools," said Michael Thomas who works directly with schools and officials. 

The programmable FOB is flexible and can be tailored to each user's individual school needs.

"A person can lock down a room  or school from anywhere in the room and alert first responders," said Erin Wilson with Dormakaba who also works with schools and users.

The Shelter lock is activated by a remote FOB, which communicates to a database that can access one or several locks. On the inside of the room, when locked, the lock glows red. On the outside, one could not tell whether a door is locked or not -- an intentional component of its design.

"Alarm goes off, red light comes on -- means your door is locked," said Vallejo.

"No one had been harmed behind a locked door -- that is really the main concern," said Thomas. "Columbine was a 2.5 hours event, Sandy Hook was a five-minutes event."

"In an active shooter situation, the last thing you want to do is open your door to see if it is locked," said Wilson.

Shelter, they say, allows for the flexibility to lock doors remotely and has a clear indicator for those inside the room.

Choices matter

"All the different security measures you put into place buys precious time for our students to ensure their safety, to ensure a proper law enforcement response," said Mendez.

With an active shooter situation, all of the design components come down to one important safety element -- time. 

"Every second matters incredibly," Powell said.

Jones said she feels comfortable allowing her daughter to attend Cypress Park High.

"Without a doubt I wouldn't want my kid at any other school," Jones said.