The use of concrete slabs to block access to the Houses of Parliament is a stark reminder of how safety and security can impact design and appearance. With crime in the news and the continuing terrorist threat across Europe, architects are under increasing pressure to balance aesthetics with pragmatism, and to provide a secure, cost-effective environment.
One practitioner who is very familiar with these concerns is John Campbell, architect at Terry Farrell & Partners (TFP).
In the past few years, Campbell has worked on the Home Office’s recently opened bombproof headquarters in Marsham Street. This new build, based on a site formerly occupied by demolished offices, has been designed to the highest safety requirements, far beyond existing legislative standards.
Yet the structure is no blast-proof bunker. In 2005, it won a RIBA Award in the public buildings category along with the Scottish Parliament and the Millau Viaduct. TFP’s £311m project is also notable for coming in on time and on budget. This is partly down to including security aspects early on in the planning stage.
PLAN FOR SAFETY EARLY
For Campbell, this is key not only in terms of controlling budgets but also for maintaining architectural control of the design. “If you don’t involve safety aspects at an early stage, it can be extremely disruptive,” he explains. “It’s not something you can add on at the end. Even if it’s just a question of adding CCTV cameras, you have to take wiring them in into account.”
Having said that, some aspects of safety are integral to building design. Fire regulations have been around for hundreds of years, designed to protect the lives of occupants and allow fire services to do their job safely. Campbell points out how many clients fail to realise that fire regulations have nothing to do with saving the fabric of a building.
“The building can collapse once the firemen have done their job,” he points out, adding that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, due to come into force in October 2006, requires owners to hold the relevant certificates, rather than awaiting visits from the fire authorities.
What is more pertinent in today’s climate, though, is the protection of buildings against petty vandalism, burglary or even terrorist attack. It is here that architects encounter the challenge of how to balance aesthetics with safety, especially when it comes to deterrence.
Designers in the UK are required to consult with the police on certain projects, as laid out in the Secured By Design initiative. As a rule, the police tend to dislike recesses and dark alleyways – anywhere people can hide or do anything without being seen from surrounding streets.
Many security devices can be installed discreetly, including infrared sensors or modern, smaller CCTV cameras that blend in with the surrounding structure.
Unfortunately, many security consultants hired by clients to protect investments insist on the most obvious signs of protection, much to Campbell’s chagrin, “They show us these huge things that have come straight out of the dark ages, but that’s what they insist upon.”
Against such intransigence, forewarned is forearmed, says Campbell. This is especially true in the case of bomb-proofing, where there is no legislation and very few guidelines. “It is important that the client knows their requirements from the outset so you can work around them,” he adds. “With bomb protection, no one wants to put anything down on paper in case they give away too much information.”
Even so, when TFP designed Vauxhall Cross, the headquarters for MI6, a strong structure was essential.
The building was designed to withstand the force of a sizeable car bomb exploding beside it, yet the only attack it has sustained was a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a few streets away. “It certainly wasn’t something we looked at when we designed the building,” Campbell admits. “And I don’t think it’s an issue today.”
Campbell lists the following procedures for architects involved in planning for sensitive work on high-security buildings:
- Obtain clear instructions from the client at an early stage about what security measures to include
- Appoint fire and security consultants early on and include them in an integrated design team
- Determine whether the project is designed to comply with fire legislation as a minimum (life safety) or make sure that it includes additional measures to protect the building fabric
- Consider the conflict between hidden security measures and features that are there to act as a deterrent
- At the start of the project allow appropriate budgets for statutory fire requirements and agreed safety measures
Car bomb attacks were influential in the design of Marsham Street, though TFP was able to incorporate this threat into its plans with more sophistication.
“We dealt with a safety consultant who was design-orientated and had time for what we were trying to achieve,” explains Campbell.
“Our subcontractor came up with members that our bomb expert thought were too lightweight, but he let us test them anyway and we found they worked.”
Campbell found that testing structures for resistance to bomb blasts was no easy task. TFP had to set up a controlled explosion, which took time to be granted permission.
“There aren’t many statistics available, so we had to actually blow up the members,” he recalls. “We went to an army range near Newcastle. We weren’t allowed to see the actual explosion ourselves, but we could see the after effects.”
It meant that the members in the Marsham Street site could be thinner and lighter than normally required. Nowadays, though, a new danger has emerged; that of suicide bombers. This threat was especially important in the design of the Home Office building.
Just as important as blast protection was the layer of security that begins outside the building.
Its central block is set well back from the street, behind raised lawns and reflective pools. In front of these are search bays at vehicle entrances and bollards around the development’s perimeter to halt onrushing trucks. As a barrier, it is much more subtle than the Palace of Westminster’s concrete blocks, but just as effective.
“A tank could get through them,” Campbell acknowledges dryly, “but then I think people would notice a tank if it came into central London and got too close.”
Joking aside, this is a direction that private owners and tenants can take when it comes to security. However, very few institutions can afford the kinds of stringent safety features the UK government has.
“We have no idea how much the Home Office paid for the increased protection,” says Campbell. “It could be one-and-a-half or two times the cost. The budget for this kind of thing tends to be kept from the public.”
Understandably, then, private firms tend to take a different approach to security.
They rely on surveillance and staff to make sure undesirable elements do not get near their front doors. This is easy to incorporate into the design when the occupier of a building is involved early on in the process, but in those cases where tenants are not signed up early, problems can arise, sometimes leading to unattractive bolt-on measures.
As Campbell points out, all parties should be aware of safety factors from the outset. If architects can ascertain requirements early on, it will help avoid trouble in the long run.