HISD architects, engineers get tips on school security and city permitting process

Architects and engineers selected to design HISD’s newest facilities participated in a four-hour planning and development session Wednesday on school security and the City of Houston’s permitting process.

“As we design new facilities, the city permitting process is critical because we need to be able to move through the design and building process efficiently and quickly while working closely with the City of Houston,” said HISD General Manager of Facilities Design Dan Bankhead. “We also wanted to share some of the best security practices from experts, so we can incorporate this into our design to create safer schools.”

Under the 2012 bond program, HISD is rebuilding and renovating 40 schools across the district into collaborative and sustainable 21st century learning environments. Each building project requires obtaining a city permit to ensure the project complies with city regulations and submitting construction-ready building plans to be reviewed in advance by the city’s planning and development services division. The city’s average commercial plan review turnaround time takes between 15 to 18 days.

“If you can submit the best possible package that’s complete, that will be a big plus for you,” said Earl Greer, Deputy Assistant Director of the Plan Review Division for the City of Houston. “If you do good planning up front and monitor our comments on your plans online, you can make the changes necessary on the design even while we’re still reviewing your plans.”

The plans submitted should include an overview of the site, design occupant loads for each interior space, landscaping, structural and nonstructural drawings, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and letters of availability for sewer and water, which is required for all new construction and site renovation projects. Some items such as fire alarm systems can be classified as deferred items and submitted later for review.

“This session has been definitely helpful because we’re able to hear directly from the city’s planning division and speak one on one with them,” said Melissa Fleming of VLK Architects, which will design the new Condit Elementary School and Energy Institute High School.

During the school and security safety presentation, the more than 40 participants learned how to design a building with a physical protection system in place to help deter, detect, delay, assess and respond to potential threats such as an active shooter.

“This is a growing threat,” said MSA Security Director of Critical Infrastructure Matthew Dimmick, who gave the presentation. “When we’re talking about security, the first place we have to look at is beyond the four walls – building access controls, entrances, doors, locking devices, traffic patterns.”

Open windows in facility design lend to natural surveillance, providing opportunities from the inside to see or be seen, Dimmick said. Fencing, which helps to clearly identify the school boundaries, can provide some security depending on the height. Other security strategies include using high-strength tempered glass and cameras that cover critical areas, entryways, alcoves, and site entries.

HISD facility planners are working with architects on designing safe school entryways and reception areas that include a security vestibule that separates visitors from the school and requires them to check in first before given access into the rest of the building.

In addition to designing closet and office areas to also be areas of refuge in emergency situations, Dimmick suggested that the district and architects consider how the facility can respond to potential threats by having an internal emergency kit with accessibility to master keys, a lockbox and security system equipment.

“In order for a security system to work, it needs a backbone,” Dimmick said. “You just can’t stick a camera in a hallway and have no way to monitor it. You can’t have a burglar alarm system with an alarm that doesn’t go anywhere such as the police department. The system has to work together.”