On the Safe Side: Safe Rooms Don’t Have to be Windowless

Impact window fabricators have had a hard road in recent years in educating the marketplace that a safe room isn’t only safe when there is no glass connecting frightened occupants to the natural disaster storming outside. Today, options do exist for tornado-rated windows, and more designers are beginning to take a serious look at incorporating safe room standards into the sunlit rooms being used on a daily basis.

“We remind designers and owners that people want to have vision to the exterior during a storm and understand what is happening [so they can] see when the ‘coast is clear,” says Kurtis Suellentrop, technical sales manager for Winco Window Co. in St. Louis, of his company’s strategy for correcting this “windowless safe room” misconception. He adds, “Being based in St. Louis, at the eastern edge of ‘Tornado Alley,’ employees at Winco Window Co. know all too well how terrifying it is to be in a dark basement and have no reference to what is going on outside.”

According to Gerry Sagerman, business development manager for Insulgard Security Products in Brighton, Mich., more designers are asking for these tornado-rated products themselves. “We were getting a lot of calls from architects,” he says. Sagerman attributes part of this to toughened legislation bringing tornado-ratings to the forefront of people’s minds. For example, “In Alabama they’ve passed legislation that every new school or any addition to a school has to have a safe room in it. I think the architects are looking at this and saying ‘I don’t want to build a vault that they use once or twice a year.’”

He attributes other calls to the ever increasing exposure designers are getting to safe, window-filled facilities.

“It’s funny,” he says, “but the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) puts out a training session on how to build safe rooms; they talk about the roof structure, they talk about the walls and what they need to do to meet FEMA requirements to make sure that building is still standing should a tornado come. One of the last slides in their presentation is a picture of a beautiful building with these windows and the [instructors] ask, ‘Where do you think the safe room in this building is?’ People look at it and guess the basement or the interior corridor. And [the instructor] explains, ‘No, it’s the whole building.’” Suddenly, the light bulb goes on that tornado safe rooms can have natural daylighting.

The project featured in that FEMA presentation, the Robert J. Curry Public Safety Center in Gulfport, Miss., was one of Insulgard’s first efforts to incorporate windows into a safe room facility. “It’s the sheriff’s department, the courthouse and everything,” Sagerman says, describing the emergency response facility. The original building was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the resulting new center fully meets requirements for a safe room, able to withstand both hurricanes and tornados. “If a tornado hits, that’s where they would do all of their emergency response from,” Sagerman says. “After a tornado or a hurricane, they have to be up and running. All of the computers have to be up and running, have power, etc.” According to Sagerman, it is here with emergency response buildings that tornado-rated projects really began three to four years ago.

Winco, too, has fabricated tornado-rated products for shelters throughout the country. “Many of them are ‘shelter-in-place’ facilities that can withstand anything that Mother Nature can throw at them while comfortably housing first responders, vehicles and rations for several days,” Suellentrop says. He offers another example: “The Pinellas County Public Works Emergency Center in Florida is a beautiful, energy-efficient, LEED-rated facility that can sustain three shifts of 50 people for up to seven days without outside supplies.”

Since the early construction of these super-strong emergency facilities, however, the interest in window-filled, tornado-rated safe rooms has spread, touching on schools and hospitals in particular. Sagerman is working with a hospital in Alabama to harden the glass in critical care areas. “If someone’s hooked up to all of these different machines—and you literally have three to five minutes before that tornado hits—trying to get all of those critical care patients [to a safe room] is really impossible. So they’re looking at securing some of the critical care areas so those areas can be the safe rooms where you can bring more mobile patients, as opposed to having to move those critical patients somewhere else.”

He adds, “Now we’re seeing more with the schools where they want to make a gymnasium or a classroom where they want to let natural light into it, but they also want to be able to use it for a shelter.”

Further exposure for these products likely will come with the release of the updated ICC 500, Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters. Updates to the 2105 edition of the standard currently are underway. Sullentrop reports that more designers already are incorporating into their tornado-rated designs the relatively recently released guidelines from the American Architectural Manufacturers Association. “Historically, we have seen specifications referencing FEMA 361 Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms and FEMA 320 Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room For Your Home or Small Business. However, we have most recently seen projects specifying AAMA 512-11 Voluntary Specifications for Tornado Hazard Mitigating Fenestration Products, which pulls from several other test standards utilizing an impact 15-pound missile launched at 100 miles per hour,” he says.

As standards evolve, projects are completed and tornados continue to wreak havoc, more designers will come to realize that they have a number of options in incorporating the benefits of natural daylight into the most secure spaces. “You don’t want to have a large building where everybody works every day of the year and can have no window,” Sagerman points out. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

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