The 8 Things Domestic Violence Shelters Can Teach Us About Secure School Design

The 8 Things Domestic Violence Shelters Can Teach Us About Secure School Design
Flexibility within communal spaces stimulates and encourages a variety of uses. Project Name: Truman High School, a Federal Way Public School. Photo by Benjamin Benschneider.

In our last Editorial, "Post-Traumatic Design: How to Design Schools that Heal Past Wounds and Prevent Future Violence," we discussed how architects must conceptualize school design in the wake of the tragic shootings that have affected our nation. Rather than leaning towards overly secure, prison-like structures, the Editorial suggested a different model, one better suited to dealing with student needs (particularly for those who have experienced trauma): domestic violence shelters.

While the comparison may seem bizarre at first, shelter design is all about implementing un-invasive security measures that could easily make schools safer, healthier spaces for students. To further elaborate this unlikely connection, we spoke with an Associate at Mahlum Architecture, Corrie Rosen, who for the last 6 years has worked with the The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence [WSCADV] on the Building Dignity project, which provides Domestic Violence Shelters advice to design shelters that empower and heal.

Find out Corrie Rosen's 8 strategies for designing schools that can improve security and student well-being, after the break...

Layers of community. Diagram by Mahlum

From Corrie Rosen, associate at Mahlum Architecture:

From Building Dignity we’ve seen that there are two ideas of preventing violence. The first measure is like a shield or an armored tank - the idea that we can create spaces that are so hardened that they can protect us by literally deflecting the violence directed against us. While relatively easy to achieve, these hardened spaces reflect the violence that they are intended to prevent. The kids and staff who use them are confronted with this latent violence every day, and it can’t help but undermine their efforts at building learning communities and educating caring members of society.

The second idea of preventing violence is harder to define. It’s the idea that when we do have successful communities they raise members who are less likely to be violent, and at the same time protect themselves by looking out for one another. Building Dignity reinforced just how important this second idea of violence prevention is – when shelters protect a woman from violence when she’s inside the shelter, but don’t provide a space that helps that woman build a new life away from abuse, then the shelter hasn’t really prevented violence, it’s only delayed it. We need shelters, and schools, that are able to do both. 

Many of the strategies we saw working at successful shelters- e.g. visual connections, flexible and right-sized spaces and abundant daylighting – are also strategies that we know result in more successful schools by fostering a strong sense of community. The design challenge is to find the appropriate balance between open, connected spaces and enclosed, defensible spaces which respond directly to an individual community’s culture, traditions and needs.

1. Allow varied/multiple levels of access for public areas.

Allow varied/multiple levels of access for public areas. Project Name: Gray Middle School, a Tacoma Public School. Plan by Mahlum.

A community meeting room open to the public may be used by residents to gather with family and supportive friends, host community groups for meetings, and/or provide a location for classes or workshops. Similarly, an outdoor gathering space that can be used for public events, without compromising resident safety, can invite community members to get involved in fulfilling the shelter’s mission.

In schools, the civic nature of education embodies the notion that learning is all about creating connections; that education can form a bridge to the community. Focusing on the buildings relationship to and transparency from the surrounding community is critical to the design process. At a time when public resources are limited, we recognize that public facilities must by necessity support a wide and diverse range of user groups. Clear identity and way finding, easy access for community use and service, the ability to secure select portions of the campus when community functions are occurring, and beautiful design all play an important role in ensuring an effective and successful community learning center.

2. Consider scale when configuring shared living quarters.

Consider scale when configuring shared living quarters. Project Name: Thurston Elementary School in Springfield School District. Photo by Lincoln Barbour

Communal living is increasingly difficult to manage for both advocates and residents as size and cultural diversity increase. It is much easier for two or three families to share a kitchen than four to ten families, regardless of how large the kitchen is.

In schools, small learning communities are shown to provide safer environments, improve student behavior, and most importantly result in higher academic achievement. The success of these models comes from stronger connections students have to their lessons, to their teachers, and to their fellow students. Ultimately, these interpersonal relationships and the sense of being a part of a distinct community give students confidence and simultaneously make them accountable for their actions and performance.

3. Visual access throughout the building enhances autonomy.

Visual access throughout the building enhances autonomy. Project Name: Rosa Parks Elementary School in Lake Washington School District. Photo by Benjamin Benschneider.

In shelters, choosing when to interact and with whom is an essential component of self determination. Residents appreciate the ability to see who is in a communal space before entering it. Interior windows or cutouts and open sight lines can accomplish this. At the same time clear visual access supports people who may be deaf, hearing impaired or use sign language to communicate.

In schools, visual connections create a highly collaborative environment, spaces need to incorporate open visual access between all learning areas to encourage communication among the staff and students and reinforce the strong student-staff connection. Visual connection between spaces reinforces the sense of a whole school working towards a common goal and conveys the idea that learning should be visible and celebrated. A highly transparent environment can even change student behavior for the better. Visual transparency between the building and the site reinforce the connection between education and the greater community and enhance parent and community involvement. Views to the exterior stimulate a feeling of connectedness to the world and beyond, and provide natural daylighting. We have learned to employ transparency with a high level of intentionality, such that a balance is maintained between openness and transparency with privacy and enclosure.

4. Clarify wayfinding.

Clarify Wayfinding. Project Name: Finn Hill Middle School in Lake Washington School District. Photo by Benjamin Benschneider.

An easy-to-navigate environment is particularly important for people who are anxious, depressed, or in crisis. Clear wayfinding helps people with short term memory problems or other cognitive challenges (which are not uncommon for survivors who have sustained traumatic brain injuries from being beaten).Children also appreciate lively colors and images at their eye level that can help them stay oriented and serve as landmarks. Differentiate areas of the building with color and pictures. Consider the needs of users with varying mobility levels. Signage should be easy to read, include Braille and integrate pictograms (not just words).

In schools, clear vistas and visual connections between all elements of the school also result in easy way-finding. Research shows that ease of orientation can dramatically reduce anxiety levels in children and can make school a non-threatening experience from day one.

5. Alcoves allow residents to retreat from larger group situations.

Alcoves allow residents to retreat from larger group situations. Project Name: Cleveland High School, a Seattle Public School. Photo by Benjamin Benschneider.

Children in particular, but also adults love window seats, alcoves and other peripheral spaces that allow them to create their own space while also being connected to the larger, communal space.

In schools, as much as students need spaces for broad social development, they also need spaces and places to go to be alone for individual study, reflection and quiet down time. Social development suggests that schools need to find a way to improve the balance between providing spaces for communal gathering with spaces of a personal scale. This design concept is often overlooked, but by developing simple niches, benches, or alcoves, we can provide a full range of spaces to meet the emotional, psychological and learning needs of all students.

6. Flexibility within communal spaces stimulates and encourages a variety of uses.

Flexibility within communal spaces stimulates and encourages a variety of uses. Project Name: Truman High School, a Federal Way Public School. Photo by Architects of Achievement.

Incorporating “tools,” such as mobile storage and lightweight but durable furniture, encourages and empowers residents and staff to reconfigure and transform the space to support their needs. Color, the position of furniture and rugs, and lighting may be used to create boundaries within a larger room rather than creating multiple smaller rooms that ultimately limit future flexibility.

In schools, learning can take place anywhere. Spaces that support multiple uses are places that provide space for a wide range of learning styles. Additionally, they are spaces that can take a variety of forms depending on the school’s social and cultural context, students’ ages and abilities, educational philosophies, curriculum and pedagogies. Multi-purpose learning spaces must be flexible. They should be able to serve a variety of learning communities within the school as well as the community surrounding the school.

7. Abundant daylight and views to the outdoors promote wellness. 

Abundant daylight and views to the outdoors promote wellness. Project Name: Thurston Elementary School in the Springfield School District. Photo by Lincoln Barbour.

Position rooms, windows, and skylights to maximize natural daylight and increase views of natural features like gardens and trees. Place windows strategically throughout the building to provide a sense of connection between the inside and outside, while still preserving the feeling of security.

In schools, spaces with glass walls or large windows connect students to nature and extend the learning environment beyond the four walls of the classroom and expand the range of learning environments.

8. Clear sightlines allow parents to supervise their children without being in the same physical space.

Clear sightlines allow parents to supervise their children without being in the same physical space. Project Name: Early Childcare Center, Mount Hood Community College. Photo by Lincoln Barbour.

Visibility allows children access to play while their parent is preparing a meal, but also supports developmentally appropriate autonomy for children.

In schools, a successful way to stimulate the brain and increase engagement is the creation of lines of sight into, through and between spaces. This occasional wandering of the eyes keeps the brain engaged and alert. It also allows learners to feel connected to a larger whole. Research shows that what you see has an impact. Natural complex environments achieve best results while monotone man-made surroundings have little impact on refreshing the learner’s brain. 

About the Author. As an Associate at Mahlum, Corrie Rosum leads the firm-wide community service group, which includes professional services, volunteerism and charitable donations. Corrie led the effort to create the RFP process to connect Mahlum with non-profits in their local community and guides the pro bono projects through completion. Prior to Mahlum, Corrie worked in New York at Maya Lin Studio. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in the Design of the Environment from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Architecture from Columbia University. She is a registered architect in Washington.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "The 8 Things Domestic Violence Shelters Can Teach Us About Secure School Design" 31 Jan 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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