Now you see it, now you don't

April 4, 1997

You will never get students - or staff - always to lock their doors. Frank Woods looks at other ways to keep intruders out and valuables safe.

A couple of weeks ago one university security officer said to me: "It's a sad fact that students don't lock doors." University staff are just as lax in exercising this most basic of security measures.

Universities, by definition, must operate an open-door policy. Those engaged on university business can walk anywhere within reason in the precinct. But so can those unlawfully engaged, and therein lies the rub.

In recent times we have designed our educational institutions as precincts with free-standing buildings, occasionally linked by covered ways such as that at the women's college, New Hall, University of Cambridge. All the buildings can easily be secured but the land between them frequently remains a no man's land. At New Hall the greatest problem is to secure the college boundary, currently unfenced and open save for the occasional wall or hedge.

Architects Austin-Smith:Lord have recently completed a major extension which addresses some of these problems. The work, which has been submitted for a civic trust award, provides 140 extra student accommodation rooms with en suite bathrooms, and a cultural and education centre. It also incorporates a secure and controlled college entrance. Anne Lonsdale, college president, says: "Good lighting on open paths and walkways with planting well back is an immediate response. In the long term there is no alternative to enclosing the perimeter and limiting access."

We can learn from the layout of colleges built in centuries past. Cambridge and Oxford are classic examples of courtyard collegiate planning, in which each college is a quadrangle of buildings with its own entrance, controlled by a porter. As growth was required another quadrangle was added, each a unit in its own right, with its own secure boundary and a minimum of entrances.

All universities, new and old record ever-increasing levels of anti-social behaviour. At one university, assault and rape represent less than 1 per cent of reported crimes. Patently, theft is most prevalent, not surprising given the amount of valuable equipment available to those who know where to look.

Many university crimes are casual or opportunistic. What can those charged with precinct security do? They cannot turn university and college precincts into virtual prisons.

Five inter-related aspects of security must be addressed: security presence, access routes, building security, precinct security and communications and publicity.

As one experienced officer says: "Good security can only work if it is affordable and accountable and manageable, and this rules out keys and locks." A lost key or master key can cause havoc with any security system. A properly worked-out card access system is less easy to breach.

Furthermore, a good access-card system does not threaten personal liberty. It can also permit access to the computer systems of libraries and networks such as the cashless purchase of food and beverages.

However, in a society increasingly conscious of the dangers of invasion of privacy, universities must be especially careful to explain the ways in which they make their security systems known. Much care and attention must also be given to the storage of security camera videotapes. However well-managed, such a system requires constant monitoring to ensure it is secure and perceived to be so.

Video cameras and their controls have improvedconsiderably. High resolution cameras produce images as precise as those of domestic television sets and the cameras themselves can be tilted, panned and zoomed by remote control from a central location.

At one university we visited recently, an impressive system of remote-control cameras covers an extensive area. The control room, manned 24 hours a day, monitors front and rear entrances of all buildings and key parts of their interiors. As one operator explained:"You very quickly become trained to recognise behaviour on camera which is out of the ordinary or suspicious."

Expert John Aston, of Yale Security Products Ltd, says that there is no reason why simple security systems cannot be installed at an economic price. But be wary. Some years ago users were misled by software designers who offered them products they did not actually need. Considerable special knowledge and experience is also needed to evaluate and select a security system. One experienced officer was able to reduce the quoted cost of a system by around 75 per cent, and improve the specification at the same time.

The problem is that the security industry is too concerned with pushing complete, all-embracing systems which are expensive and unnecessarily complex. These flatter the ego of the security officers concerned but have little to do with the real aims of an appropriate system. It is better to take advice from those who know about the really necessary component parts which can then be interlinked. Such components may well be manufactured by more than one company.

It is possible to provide a building with locks for a card access system for the relatively low cost of Pounds 120-Pounds 150 per door. Buildings can be treated as a stand-alone system or be interlocked by a radio link, supplied by a different manufacturer, and connected to a central control at a cost of Pounds 5,000 to Pounds 10,000.

The financial benefits of effective security are difficult to demonstrate but during the early years of a building's use the cost will be repaid in insurance premium savings, replacement costs of stolen equipment and the cost of administrative time spent dealing with the loss.

The best defence is good visibility at all times, particularly at night. This demands careful analysis and planning and consultation with the local police. Good lighting is the key criminal deterrent; yet few universities light their precincts well. In a study of the Manchester higher education precinct, we assessed the approaches to the precinct and recommended that some should be closed off to control the movement of the public.

Other measures include improving lighting to provide well-lit movement routes and clearly marking doorways and entrances. The ground-level of a departmental building should be regarded as its shop window, as it is in department stores. Materials such as laminated glass in ground-floor windows provide good visibility as well as an effective physical barrier.

The police recognise that theft and burglary can never be completely eliminated. The only effective and economic way to reduce crime in our universities is to make it much more difficult for criminals to operate. Universities and their constituent departments and colleges need to be much more aware of the facilities and advice available from local police, particularly police architectural liaison officers, who can offer invaluable help in designing out crime.

Frank Woods is a partner of Austin-Smith:Lord, architects and planners.

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