After the Unthinkable: Revisiting Design & Security in the Built Environment

Presented by: Rula Awwad-Rafferty, Linda O'Shea

Context The year 2015 challenges us “So far this year, there have been at least 294 mass shooting incidents. There have been 274 days” (1). The FBI released a report on Active Shooter Incidents in the US. The number of “active shooter” incidents, defined as “an individual engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area,” more than doubled (2). Those incidents claimed the lives of 468 people and left 557 others wounded, while undermining public’s sense of safety, predictability, and place. The goal of the FBI study was to provide data to better understand how to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from these incidents. The report points out that the majority of the incidents occurred in commercial places, then educational settings. This abstract translates the FBI’s goal into actionable strategies and recommendations for Interior Design. Research Question/Theory Explored The threat of active shooters in public space is real and can cause substantial psychological and physical costs. As design scholars, educators, and practitioners, it is imperative to understand the role that Interior Design plays in combating fear, reducing risks, and mitigating threats. Through case analysis the authors explore ways by which Interior Design can anticipate threats, prevent potential security breach, mitigate incidents, and modify practice. Framework of Exploration Embracing an integrative approach that values physical and psychological security, the authors utilize a model developed in 2009 (3) to situate safety and security within a contextual, sustainable, and user centered systems approach. Review of a representative sample of incidents characterized as Active Mass shooting incidents, was conducted. Facility types selected for investigation were public building where most incidents have occurred: commercial spaces, educational facilities, and government facilities. Incident reports, expert analysis, spatial layout, and image analysis were reviewed, focusing on design and management features that play a role in anticipating, mitigating, and reducing impact of threats while maintain the spirit of engagement in the public domain. Public spaces are challenging because of the inherent spatial complexities. Religious facilities offer a different challenge; people gather in identifiable places for worship and community. The majority of these facilities offer daycare and educational programs, and all offer places of refuge in times of emergencies (4). Inclusive Security Paradigm: The layers of analysis for each setting include: Context and Experience: qualitative and quantitative metrics of physical affordances Threats and vulnerabilities: threat assessment conducted by internal and external teams. User Centered Design: expert driven and participatory approaches CPTED 3-D application: Designation, Definition, Design Addressing CPTED guiding principles: Access control, Natural surveillance, Territoriality and Territorial Reinforcement, Maintenance, Target Hardening. Conclusions and Implications It is our responsibility to assess, create, evaluate, and improve the overall quality of life and experience in designed environments. An integrative paradigm where design for safety and security merges with inclusive and sustainable design in authentic responsive to human needs is needed. According to the UN Commission on Human Security “Human security means protecting vital freedoms. It means protecting people from critical and pervasive threats and situations, building on their strengths and aspirations. It also means creating systems that give people the building blocks of survival, dignity and livelihood. To do this, it offers two general strategies: protection and empowerment. Protection shields people from dangers. Empowerment enables people to develop their potential and become full participants in decision-making.” (5); Interior Design is uniquely positioned to meet this dual goal.


  • Mass Shooting Tracker (law enforcement reliable data). Retrieved from
  • 2. A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013. Federal Bureau of Investigation Unclassified Report. September 16, 2013 Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from:
  • Design and Security in the Built Environment. O’Shea, L.; Awwad-Rafferty, R. 2009. Fairchild books.
  • Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship. June, 2013. FEMA. Retrieved on September 10, 2015
  • CPTED – Crime Prevention through Environmental Design Retrieved September 8, 2015
Join Renew Instagram Twitter Facebook LinkedIn
image widget