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Sean Sugden, a Fargo, N.D..-based architect for EAPC, addresses an audience in Minot, N.D., about the company’s Design for School Safety, an initiative to make buildings more safe in an age of mass violence. Image: Courtesy of EAPC

Designed for Safety

A look at what some upper Midwest architectecture and engineering companies are doing to build safer schools and businesses

After gunshots were reported at Columbine High School in 1999 in Littleton, Colo., Don Moseman was one of many law enforcement officers called to the scene. 

It was the first school shooting that Moseman responded to, but it would not be the last. He responded to another school shooting and workplace shooting before retiring from law enforcement.

His heart breaks, as does the heart of a country, every time he hears of another mass shooting. When will such senseless tragedy end? 

Moseman, who now lives in North Dakota, knows he cannot passively wait for an answer that likely will never come, and so he is proactively doing what he can to bring more awareness to people about what they can do to protect themselves and those around them. 

As a master instructor with the North Dakota Safety Council in Bismarck, he leads safety initiatives and the training of his team. But there’s another way he is trying to help: by partnering with a North Dakota-based architecture and engineering company.

Creating Safer Buildings

EAPC Architects Engineers, based in Grand Forks, N.D., but which has offices in several upper Midwest locations as well as in Fort Collins, Colo., and Phoenix, Ariz., works with many different businesses and organizations, but through its Design for School Safety initiative one of its priorities is partnering with school districts in an effort to make buildings more safe in the event of an active shooter. 

It’s an effort that seems to be trending across the architectural landscape, as other firms also are doing their part to make buildings safer. 

Partnering with the North Dakota Safety Council, EAPC’s initiative focuses on educating school administrators and staff about how design considerations can bring added safety to their schools. Several educational workshops about the company’s initiative have been held at schools, according to marketing director Lori Bakken, and additional presentations have been given to business professionals. 

The initiative started about two years ago when Fargo-based senior architect Sean Sugden approached a member of his church’s safety team who happened also to be on the Safety Council. He said he wanted to toss around ideas about what could be done from an architectural standpoint to make the building more safe. That discussion turned into one about schools and businesses.  

“I was just wondering what we could proactively do as architects to make sure that our schools are safer for students and staff and not vulnerable to events that may happen,” he said. 

The company is starting to see the fruits of the initiative with new, safer schools that the company designed in Williston, N.D., and Bemidji, Minn.

Before each of the schools were finished, Sugden invited the Safety Council to tour the buildings and give its input and recommendations. 

Enter Moseman, who during a walk-through of the Williston building critiqued the school with a 95% ranking. He offered some additional suggestions, however, and school administrators were invited to tour the building next so they could physically see what Moseman had recommended. 

Sugden said it’s important to get the perspective and input from professionals outside of architecture. 

“I know design but I don't necessarily look at architecture from the security and safety standpoint,” he said. “We have mechanical engineers, structural engineers, electrical engineers that we hire. You always need a second look because they're the experts in their fields and we don't know their stuff.” 

Reinforcing Existing Buildings

Sugden said more businesses nowadays are thinking about upgrading their buildings’ features to make them safer places to work. But as with school districts, what features are incorporated into a building depends on the particular company’s finances and how much it can afford. 

“Money is always a big driver,” he said. “But then again, what is that to the cost of a life?”

It’s easier to incorporate safety features into a new building during the design phase than an existing building for the obvious reasons, he said, but there usually are several things that can still be improved at an older facility.

Paul Breiner, project architect with Ackerman-Estvold, said the Minot-based company also is focused on developing safer buildings. One of the more popular features is making sure buildings have controlled access, usually involving two sets of doors. The first set of doors will get a person to the administration counter; the second door is unlocked once the visitor has been vetted to enter the building beyond that point. 

“We look at multiple things … and may incorporate other aspects into a design,” Breiner said, “but that’s a pretty straightforward approach.” 

He said a lot of schools have come on board with a two-door entry feature, especially when funding for larger projects may be difficult. 

Moseman said it’s important nowadays to also have locked entrances at businesses, depending on the service they provide. 

“If you have a retail establishment where you sell a good or you have a situation where multiple customers come into your building all the time, that's one thing,” Moseman said. “But if you're a standard business where you have a few visitors and maybe some contractors that come into the building from time to time, our recommendation is every single one of those businesses have locked entrances … that's kind of like a standard protocol that we recommend now, not just in schools, but with businesses.”

Moseman, who has been invited to give his input on several renovation projects, has seen firsthand what some options are for buildings whose owners might have tighter pocketbooks. Even with smaller budgets he said there usually is something that can be done to improve safety features. He gives one example of how walls may be reinforced.  

“It's part of the design process we look at – which walls are masonry, which walls are drywall, and can those things be adjusted to make the rooms safer. Sometimes they can,” he said. School districts, for instance, “can put other things like cabinets on the inside of a classroom that can give protection from ballistic threats. … Those are the types of things we look at, and then EAPC and its architects give schools options from a budgetary standpoint.”

He continued: “The idea is that if there's a threat inside the building, you can isolate the threat and make it harder for them to access where students are by electronically closing doors within a building. And by the way, almost all of these applications we also recommend for businesses.”

The Importance of Space

JLG Architects, based in St. Cloud, Minn., but which does project work in both the Dakotas as well as the North Star State, also works on designs to make buildings safer, but with a caveat: In the end any building is only as safe as its occupants, according to owner Dan Miller. 

Miller said his firm focuses on designing buildings in an effort to foster safety and camaraderie, which some people might believe are contradictory terms: how can you have an open social environment and still be safe? 

Miller, who leads the firm’s K-12 projects in Alexandria, Minn., explains why: “It’s not just those one time-big events that we have to consider but the day-to-day small things are just as important,” he said, meaning relationship building among peers. It’s in relationship building that hopefully such things as bullying is lessened and which may avoid conflict in the future.

For him, designing a safe building is incorporating a balance between two philosophies: the bunker mentality and the social mentality. 

In the event of an active shooter incident the first rule of thumb is to run or hide, if possible. “Escape and evade is important,” Miller said, “but those aspects of what you would design into a building to do that, where you create more of a bunker mentality to protect and escape, to put separation between you and the active shooter, is exactly the opposite of what you would want to foster good relations between individuals and creating a healthy environment, whether it's a learning environment at school or work environment.”

He said, however, that incorporating features to keep students and employees more safe are top of mind on any project at JLG and has been since Columbine, though that awareness has heightened over the years with the increased number of mass violence incidents. 

“It’s a prerequisite on every job at this point,” he said of that awareness, noting that even buildings his firm designs with open floor plans incorporate safety features such as secure access points and common areas visible to the administration office. 

The upper Midwest is known for extreme weather, and being prepared for Mother Nature’s fury is something else designers have to consider when making building plans.

A Sad Reality

In the late 1970s actor Dick Van Dyke went on television to demonstrate “stop, drop and roll,” a national safety campaign that taught what to do in the event of a building fire. The motto was heard and rehearsed by school-age children across the country for years. 

Moseman asks: When was the last time you heard of a student dying from a fire at a school?

He notes that over the years buildings were enhanced with fire alarms and people were better educated about what to do in the event of unexpected flames or smoke.  

The world is a different place now, with critical dangers lurking from other people bent on violence. It’s a sad reality of the times, he said, and people must be educated on a different level.

Moseman believes that the better educated people are in terms of preventative measures, including what design features can enhance safety in their buildings and incorporating those features, the better off businesses, churches and schools will be. 

And, he said, you don’t have to give up artistic design for safety. 

“I think with a little forethought you can take care of both needs,” he said. “You can make a building that is aesthetically pleasing both inside and out, but also make it functional when it comes to safety. And that's a keyword – you want to make it functional.” 

Prairie Business Editor Andrew Weeks may be reached at or 701-780-1276. Also, find him on Twitter @PB_AndrewWeeks.