AIA architect pushes for school design best practices in testimony to White House Cabinet officials

Sandy Hook Elementary School

WASHINGTON – In testimony before senior White House cabinet members, leading school-design architect Jay Brotman, AIA, pushed for legislation—being spearhead by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) last week—that promotes the design of open learning environments that enhance safety and security.

“The desire to craft design strategies that mitigate the challenges schools face is an absolute priority. As architects, we do this every day,” said Brotman, who designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary School. “However, two ongoing problems prevent local school officials from implementing these solutions—a lack of access to quality school-design information and the ability to fund them.”

Brotman’s testimony follows a statement released by the AIA last week, which outlines the Institute’s commitment for improving school design policies. Specifically, AIA is launching a bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill focusing on two main goals: 1.) making architectural and design services for schools an allowable use of funds within existing federal funding and grants; and 2.) Establishing a federal clearinghouse of resources on school design best practices for school officials, architects and other design professionals to keep them informed.

During his testimony, Brotman—partner at Svigals + Partners—detailed best practices that were incorporated into the new Sandy Hook Elementary School. Most notably, Brotman explained that schools cannot be designed with a one-size-fits-all approach or utilizing a specific security prescription as they need to be developed around input from the community and designed to address the specific needs of the students and teachers.

“Whether it’s a retrofit or new school, each school must be designed for its unique student population, for its unique location, and to meet the needs of its unique community,” said Brotman before the Federal Commission on School Safety. “The primary goal is to provide an inspiring, healthy environment that promotes learning. Security features, while vital and necessary, should be as invisible as possible and incorporated into the school’s design. Failing to do so puts children’s education, emotional development and pro-social behavior at risk.”

Brotman detailed features of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School that create an open and welcoming design concept, which maximizes daylight and provides a layered approach to security—both natural and technological—seamlessly incorporated into the design.

“There’s a rain garden with a sunken rock ‘river,’ along the entire front of the school–creating a moat of sorts, that is clearly not friendly to cars or people. The design then has three small footbridges to cross the rain garden to enter the school, which also controls entry,” said Brotman. “The children are unaware about the security benefits provided by the rain garden—and they don’t need to know. This small but impactful example shows the value of taking a comprehensive, design—centered approach to school security. It is a highly specific answer to multiple physical and emotional considerations at once.”

In addition to Brotman, other AIA member architects—with an expertise in the design of safer schools—are also taking part in the national dialogue on school safety.

On Oct. 19, the Institute’s CAE is holding a national multidisciplinary symposium: “The Design of Safe, Secure & Welcoming Learning Environments,” at the AIA national headquarters in Washington. The symposium will bring together a wide variety of perspectives from stakeholders that include law enforcement, educators, mental health advocates, and security consultants, as well as architects and other design professionals. Together, they will share in a dialogue about the development of safe, secure and welcoming schools, which may inform the resources included in a federal clearinghouse.

On Aug. 7, architect Stuart Coppedge, FAIA, Principal of RTA Architects, presented to the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Commission on School Safety during its listening session in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Coppedge provided the commission with insights into the collaborative design and community evaluation processes architects employ to create great educational environments with enhanced safety.

On Aug. 1, two leading members of the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE), Karina Ruiz, AIA, Principal of BRIC Architecture Inc. and Brian Minnich, AIA, of GWWO provided recommendations for designing safer schools to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In May, the AIA announced the appointment of architect and former AIA President Jeff Potter, FAIA, to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s roundtable, which is intended to identify enhanced safety and security strategies for the state’s schools and communities. Additionally, AIA components in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and other states have been advising their governors and elected officials on the issue.