Security Considerations in Green Building Design

October 1, 2009
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Recommendations for balancing the conflicting values of security and sustainability in facility design

The rapid and widespread adoption of sustainability initiatives in building design over the past few years has had a fairly dramatic impact on nearly every A&E discipline. Unfortunately, it appears that physical security design considerations have, for the most part, been omitted from any guidance and policy related to sustainability. As a result, sustainable design practices often contradict established physical security design practices such as security lighting, operability of windows, landscaping, and others.

There can be considerable risk incurred by designers, developers, owners, and occupants if certain sustainable design elements are adopted at the expense of physical security. Early integration of physical security as a design discipline within building projects can significantly reduce risk while ensuring that sustainable design goals are achieved without compromising physical security.

With a few exceptions, the application of physical security design practices such as security-optimized lighting levels, landscaping, and physical barriers has not historically been dictated by codes or regulations. Obvious exceptions include high-security facilities such as government buildings and nuclear power plants. To this day, regulations for security measures at healthcare facilities generally only address securing radiological and biological materials. As a result, physical security as a design discipline is frequently omitted in lieu of basic security design practices, such as Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) for which specialized security engineering skills are not required.

Designers of electronic security systems such as access control, intrusion detection, and surveillance systems are often included late in the design process, if at all. Under such circumstances, it is not uncommon to encounter design coordination issues requiring retrofit security installations in brand new facilities. This is costly and inefficient, and more often than not, it can require unnecessary compromises between security and sustainability.

It becomes progressively more costly to reverse design efforts as an overall facility design matures. Furthermore, last-minute solutions to conflicting design efforts can often lead to less effective solutions than the original design intended. Successful integration of security and sustainability goals in any building project begins with early inclusion of security professionals in the design team. The benefits of this can be realized in early recognition of physical security requirements that may affect sustainable design elements, such as lighting, parking, ventilation, and accessibility. When it comes to identifying conflicting design goals, sooner is always better.

Given that the great majority of physical security systems are not governed by code or regulation, how can an owner, developer, or design team establish the proper level of security protection for a healthcare facility under design? The answer lies in the proper execution of a security risk assessment. Owners may have in-house personnel (such as public safety officers) who are trained and qualified to perform such studies, or they may choose to retain the services of a qualified security consulting firm. The key is that the owner attains an accurate and quantitative understanding of the assets, threats, and vulnerabilities inherent to the facility in order to manage its security risk. The risk management process can then lead to a basis of design for security. As with any other design discipline, proper balance between sustainability and security can only be achieved by first establishing this basis of design.

The operational nature of healthcare facilities differs significantly from that of facilities in most other sectors. Round-the-clock public accessibility to clinical services, coupled with unpredictable schedules of operation required by clinical and research labs, create unique security challenges. These are further exacerbated by the presence of narcotic drugs, hazardous chemicals, radiological materials, biological select agents, animal research, abortion facilities, and multiple other potential targets of criminal activity. In this sense, a healthcare facility offers one-stop shopping for both the street criminal and terrorist alike. It is imperative that these factors be carefully considered by the A&E community, and that sustainable design guidelines are applied to healthcare facilities within the context of this unique environment.


One of the fundamental conflicts between sustainable design and physical security practices involves lighting. Whether indoors or out, sustainable design guidelines push for minimal lighting levels for energy conservation, as well as decreased light pollution. At the same time, increased lighting levels (particularly in outdoor environments) can dramatically reduce criminal activity. Solutions to this conflict can be as simple as working with the security team early on in the design process to identify appropriate illumination levels in specific spaces and segregate designated after-hours parking areas that can be adequately lit while minimizing the negative effects of light pollution on surrounding areas.

Another example involves the use of security surveillance technology to control lighting circuits. Though the principle of motion-activated lighting is certainly not new, it is relatively ineffective in outdoor environments where traditional outdoor motion sensors have proven to be susceptible to nuisance activation due to superfluous activity. Video analytic technology (sometimes referred to as “intelligent video”) has the capability of differentiating people from animals, cars from trucks, directionality of movement, and numerous other programmable criteria within a scene to generate outputs that can be used to effectively trigger lighting circuits.


Another example of conflicting sustainability and security guidelines has to do with building site preparation and landscaping. Sustainable design guidelines suggest a preference for minimal disruption of the natural environment, as well as the use of shade trees and vegetation to reduce solar loads and the heat island effect. Security practices, on the other hand, generally indicate the need for clear lines of sight to all building approaches and parking areas from within the facility. Surveillance equipment is commonly used to extend visual coverage to more remote locations. Lack of coordination between landscaping and security designers can severely limit the effectiveness of surveillance equipment. For example, in one documented instance, a risk management decision by the facility's owner led to a costly removal, relocation, and eventual replacement of multiple trees, at great expense to the project. Simple coordination between landscape and security designers can serve to identify not only the location, but the type of vegetation and growth patterns to aid in effective design and deployment of surveillance systems.


Parking facilities are another area of contention between sustainable design guidelines and security practices. Outdoor lots negatively impact the environment in several different ways, including storm-water management concerns as well as the aforementioned heat island effect. Sustainability guidelines thus call for designers to incorporate underground parking facilities whenever possible. Depending on the location of these parking facilities in relation to other sensitive assets within a healthcare facility, there may be a strong contraindication to this from a security standpoint. For example, the presence of an abortion clinic or other facilities that handle sensitive material near a parking area would usually constitute an unacceptable level of risk for the owner. A possible solution would include development of a parking management and segregation plan that would limit access to more sensitive parts of the parking facility to trusted individuals (i.e., pre-approved employees) and their vehicles.


The issue of natural ventilation for air quality improvement offers another illustration of contrasting practices between security and sustainability. The use of operable windows, particularly at ground level, creates multiple security vulnerabilities including opportunities for intrusion, vandalism, arson, and property theft. Working as part of the team, the security designer can assist in establishing design criteria for the use of operable windows and openings that will minimize the potential security risk to the facility.


Though the correlation of sustainable design guidelines to physical security design practices may not be immediately evident, the two can impact one another in numerous other ways. Despite the apparent conflicts, it would be unwise to altogether forego either one in favor of the other. The only thing worse than foregoing security in favor of sustainability would be the need to eliminate or replace costly sustainable design features as a result of litigation stemming from a serious security incident. In contrast, early integration of physical security as part of the design team will produce the most effective balance between sustainability and security, while still achieving project goals in both areas. Sustainability and security practices can coexist and succeed through teamwork and creativity. HBI

Roger Rueda, PSP, is Senior Technical Consultant with Applied Risk Management, LLC, Stoneham, Massachusetts. He can be reached at 877.365.8880, or

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Healthcare Building Ideas 2009 Summer;6(3):36-39