Security in the Built Environment: Religious Spaces
Updated: Jun 15
by Raffi Arzoumanian
"I am of the belief that through creative approaches and collaboration with specialty consultants, architects can successfully combine aesthetics and security to not only make community members feel supported in their faith and traditions, but also provide a sense of protection and preparedness should the unthinkable happen."
As an architect with a specialization in institutional, community, and cultural projects, I have had the privilege of designing a wide range of religious facilities throughout my career. Getting the opportunity to work with different communities, learning about their unique traditions, and then creating a building that honors the people and history connected to that faith is always a fascinating design challenge and ultimately a rewarding process.
Just like any building, many considerations go into religious facility design aside from program or aesthetics. One of the most important practical elements is security. Unfortunately, far too often in recent years and even in recent weeks, tragic events of public violence have made it necessary for designers to continually re-evaluate the way we integrate security features into spaces of worship.
I am of the belief that through creative approaches and collaboration with specialty consultants, architects can successfully combine aesthetics and security to not only make community members feel supported in their faith and traditions, but also provide a sense of protection and preparedness should the unthinkable happen.
The Threats We Prepare For
When it comes to religious facilities, the top three considerations for security are as follows: the threat of an active shooter, a vehicle used as a weapon, or an explosive device. I work with my team to develop comprehensive design strategies that address all three. Our approach is informed by consultation with local authorities and law enforcement agencies to obtain the latest pertinent information. In our process, we typically address issues including the following:
Visibility and access: Ideally, any public facility should have complete visibility of anyone who enters the building, while ensuring protection for anyone inside. As an example, in one of our projects, we designed all entrances to the building with glazing for maximum visibility to the outside, putting any visitor in full view. However, on the inside, interior walls were specified as solid masonry. In the event of an active shooter, these walls cannot be penetrated by bullets, thereby protecting worshippers in the innermost sanctuaries. Designs that include layers of access allow for potential attackers to be isolated from building inhabitants while emergency services are contacted.
To protect against vehicles used as weapons, there are many barrier choices for use around the perimeter of a facility. These include simple bollards or other more aesthetically pleasing elements that work as a protective barrier, such as large concrete planters, trees, or landscaped walls.
Materials: Building materials for any religious facility must be chosen with security in mind. Drywall, for example, can be penetrated by a bullet, so use of this wall type should be considered very carefully. Bulletproof glass is a crucial choice to secure any glass-enclosed area. For walls facing a street or other high-traffic area, we typically opt for solid masonry with reinforcement if not already protected by an external barrier.
Lighting and monitoring systems: To deter any intruder or placement of an explosive device, it is essential that any dark corners or niches be eliminated from the design. Robust security lighting throughout both the interior and exterior paired with security cameras will enable active, real-time monitoring of all aspects of the building and its surroundings.
It is also important to have procedures in place to support these systems. Running through drills and scenarios with membership and leaders of the religious community will keep people prepared in the event of an emergency.
Protection as a Design Goal
It is an unfortunate fact of our world in recent decades that violence has disrupted civilian life on far too many occasions, including devastating incidents at places of worship. Until public policy changes and root causes are addressed, we, as architects, can do our best to use the built environment thoughtfully as a first line of defense against possible threats. When public spaces are designed to support not only community and tradition, but also peace of mind and safety, they can serve as an example of how architecture can respond and adapt to a spectrum of needs all in one place.