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Gimme Shelter

Administrators and educators routinely conduct hurricane, tornado and fire drills to protect students from various disasters. Moving students and teachers quickly to safe areas is critical, but the school building itself also can help protect occupants from manmade and natural disasters.

Several design strategies can help schools and universities plan a new facility that can save lives in the event of a disaster. Proper planning and some basic design elements with regard to roof assembly, exterior walls, glass and internal shelters can prove essential.

Building envelope

A school building's envelope, composed of the roof assembly and exterior walls, is likely to take the brunt of a storm, tornado or manmade attack. Designers should select materials that can withstand a substantial impact from such events. Using materials such as cast concrete or reinforced masonry structures results in substantially more durable exterior and interior walls. Steel reinforcement can allow for a much higher impact resistance than most traditional structures.

Masonry and concrete structures can give occupants the time needed to exit in the event of a fire or other crisis. Recent events have demonstrated that many of the materials used today (and allowed by code) may not protect building occupants sufficiently in the event of a substantial disaster.

Glass danger

During a storm or other disaster, flying glass is a significant hazard that accounts for most injuries. The risks become even greater in some new buildings, which often are designed with increased glazing to capture daylighting benefits. Designers should not limit the use of natural light; its contribution to improving student performance can be substantial. However, in the event of a natural disaster, schools should have safe areas away from glass where students and staff can go.

In the event of manmade disasters, little warning usually is given. Designers should consider providing glass with laminated cores that will prevent it from becoming airborne from an impact or blast. This type of glazing increases the cost of glass substantially, but it can reduce injury from a disaster that strikes an occupied building.

Safe rooms

Many schools are creating “safe room” shelters. These small, self-contained rooms can hold large numbers of students and staff for a limited time during an extreme weather emergency.

Schools must look at many issues as they consider whether to establish safe rooms. Extreme storms, such as tornados, usually allow little time for building occupants to move to one small space. Planners must consider central or multiple locations within a building where people can find refuge.

Severe storms are likely to interrupt building power. Schools should have access to backup electrical power, lighting and communication devices. Battery-operated lighting and communication devices, such as two-way radios, are available at reasonable costs. Workers should check backup equipment monthly to make sure it is operating properly.

The Cleveland (Texas) Independent School District near Houston installed safe rooms in a new elementary school to protect students and teachers from tornados and hurricanes. A relatively simple planning solution has allowed large multi-stall restrooms to be used as weather shelters.

The facilities were constructed of all masonry walls on the interior and exterior. The walls were installed with reinforcement every two feet from the floor to the ceiling. Concrete decks just above the normal ceilings gave the rooms added strength and protection. The school placed a restroom/safe room in each of the school's four wings. Backup battery lighting was provided as part of the ceiling lighting systems, and communication systems with two-way radios were placed in a small safety vault near the entrance of each safe room.

The cost for the four safe rooms was estimated at $50,000. In parts of the country where tornados or hurricane threats are common, schools will find that storm-proofing goes a long way in providing protection for students and staff and peace of mind for parents.

Terrorist threats

A very different safety concern faced the Killeen (Texas) Independent School District. Killeen serves the Fort Hood army base, one of the largest and most sophisticated in North America. Fort Hood is sensitive to the threat of terrorism, and schools built in and around the base have taken an aggressive design-based approach to safety.

Again, the design begins with superior wall assemblies of masonry. They are reinforced at four-foot intervals. All roof decks on these facilities are provided with lightweight concrete decks. The wall and deck assemblies are tied together to provide a superior performance diaphragm in the event of a manmade attack. All exterior glass is laminated safety glass. In the event of an impact, the glass would perform like an automobile windshield — breaking, but holding together through a plastic film rather than flying through the air.

To enhance protection from vehicular dangers, parking and drives are no closer than 90 feet from the building structure. Students, parents and staff have to walk farther to each entrance, but the design keeps all stopped vehicles at a safe distance from structures. Building entry also is limited to three points at the beginning and ending of the school day, and to a single highly visible entrance after the school day begins. Trash bins are situated in one area, a minimum of 150 feet from any building structures.

All building ventilation intakes are filtered and placed in concealed locations. Sidewall and roof access are not allowed for air-intake systems. Backup power is provided for all safety devices, such as alarms, communication systems and lighting.

These proactive steps cost the school district about $400,000 for an average 800-student middle school (less than $3.25 per square foot) and $250,000 for an average elementary school (less than $4 per square foot).

This type of safety planning may never be put to the test. However, the well-being of children who attend these schools justifies the planning and cost that went into these schools.

Natural disasters are a part of our lives — we have and will face threatening weather each year. Combined with intensified fears about domestic terrorism, parents are more anxious than ever about the safety of their children at school.

Facilities can include many features that enhance safety with minimal cost. Administrators should assess the risks in their schools and compare the “first-cost” impact with overall safety benefits.

Huckabee, AIA, is CEO of Huckabee Architecture, Engineering, Management, Fort Worth, Texas. The firm has been providing planning, design and management of schools for 35 years.

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