The horrors of the Sandy Hook school shooting 10 years ago not only shattered our illusion of schools as a sanctuary but altered the way schools are designed.

Jay Brotman, a managing partner at Svigals + Partners, the New Haven, Conn.-based architectural firm that designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, which opened in 2016, says that architects are now more aware of the steps needed to make schools safer.

The new Sandy Hook Elementary boasts an array of security features designed to blend in rather than intimidate. Robert Benson Photography courtesy Svigals + Partners.

“Architectural design teams are much more cognizant of the issues that make a school safer – not just protecting against an active shooter, but also in the prevention of the more common bullying situations,” says Brotman. “School designers today are taking a more holistic approach when they consider how their building designs can affect the children and teachers that inhabit them.”

The new Sandy Hook Elementary boasts an array of security features designed to blend in rather than intimidate. Brotman says that soon after the attack, many in the community wanted to rebuild with a focus on fortifying; however, once the planning stage commenced, Svigals + Partners sought to design the school as inviting and open as possible.

As a result, the new Sandy Hook Elementary centers around the healing effects of nature with inconspicuous protection sprinkled throughout. These include an elevated ground floor to make seeing inside classrooms difficult, controlled footbridges, bullet-resistant windows, doors that can be locked both inside and out and bioswales outside the building that absorb water for plants while keeping visitors at a distance. The school’s strength is in the subtle redesign that balances the tranquility of nature and increased protection with an open layout that won’t take students out of their comfort zones.

“With a deeper understanding of security principles, it was immediately apparent that the more open the school, the safer the environment would be,” says Brotman. “Using natural observation and a significant amount of exterior glass, the building would provide the children access to natural daylight and views of nature, which have been shown to improve learning outcomes while also providing a higher level of safety.”

For the layperson, the increased use of exterior glass in schools might seem counterintuitive. Julie Schimmelpenningh, Eastman Chemical Company’s technical engagement manager, says that the penetration resistance and ability of glass to hold up to multiple rounds of attack, even when being shot, has been demonstrated in testing and real-life applications.

Svigals + Partners’ design of Sandy Hook Elementary shows that schools can still be designed tastefully with security features hidden in plain sight. Robert Benson Photography courtesy Svigals + Partners.

The perception of glass has also changed over the years. That shift started in 1992 following Hurricane Andrew. Schimmelpenningh says that when researchers combed through debris, they found laminated glass panels cracked but intact in many instances.

“This began a paradigm shift from glass being perceived as the weakest link to glass being perceived as a thin, transparent but very effective barrier,” says Schimmelpenningh. “Of course, our government agencies and those involved in blast resistance were already well aware of these benefits and had been using enhanced glass, such as laminated glass, to protect people and facilities for years. So, there is validity that glass can break, but breaking and failing to protect need to be separately discussed as glass does have the ability to protect.”

This article is the first in a series that will explore how the glazing industry, products and buildings design have changed in the ten years since the Sandy Hook shooting. The series continues later this week.