The necessity of security is so intertwined in the history of the built environment that it may go back back to the roots of why we want to build in the first place. From the age-old castle typology to the earliest hill-forts, architecture has served to secure and protect since its humble beginnings.

If you're designing a building for security, it's important to think about how your design's defenses can be met sustainably — and to also consider how these measures can be achieved without antagonizing its inhabitants. 

These are the challenges which passive security aims to solve: quietly protecting people — and without the ongoing maintenance and energy costs that traditional security entails. 

Ornate plate metal protects interiors from heavy wind and prying eyes.
Ornate plate metal protects interiors from heavy wind and prying eyes.
The design protects the interiors while enhancing the space with natural light.
The design protects the interiors while enhancing the space with natural light.

Passive Security vs. Active Security

Passive security in architecture can be broadly defined as “a design feature which deters threats while remaining largely invisible to its users.” Passive security is also predominantly productless — so rather than existing as products to be specified, passive security is about using good design to add a layer of privacy, security, and protection. 

Active security is more readily visible and more in line with what most people think of as traditional security. Examples include spiked gates, high fences, barbed wire, metal detectors, security cameras, and armed security patrols. These security options all project an outward signal of aggression and many of these will require ongoing costs to maintain. 

This tendency for active security to intimidate is the impetus for the passive security movement. Active security may scare or intimidate its inhabitants and visitors. Studies have documented that when innocent people see instruments which are intended to protect, they feel less safe and have heightened fear reactions. 

“If it’s a K–8 school, and you’ve put a metal detector at the front door, what does that say? Security should be more integrated, more discreet, and architects should first try to think of passive ways to incorporate security requirements.”

James Timeberlake FAIA quoted in Architect Magazine.
Passive Security in Architecture

Passive security is about adding an additional purpose by utilizing aesthetics. James Timberlake describes how disguising security can benefit how we interact with buildings in an interview with Architect Magazine's Elizabeth Dickinson on designing for security:

Keeping security discreet is something more architects and landscape architects should make a priority, according to James Timberlake, FAIA, founding partner of KieranTimberlake. “In general, architects need to challenge the theory that overt visual deterrents, which are the most aggressive features in the landscape, are the answer,” Timberlake says.

“If it’s a K–8 school, and you’ve put a metal detector at the front door, what does that say? Security should be more integrated, more discreet, and architects should first try to think of passive ways to incorporate security requirements.”

What does passive security have to do with Zahner?

As a company, we've taken great efforts to be stewards of both sustainability and safety for our employees as well as for communities across the globe. We believe that these measures go hand in hand with improving the aesthetics of security. To this end, Zahner provides architecture firms with thoughtfully executed engineered and fabricated solutions for security. 

In recent years, our team at Zahner has entered into a number of projects with creative security measures, and we think these are worth sharing with the architectural community. 

The case studies below include security measures as part of our scope. (And we'll continue to update our latest examples of passive security here.) Here are three examples of designs with passive security measures, manufactured by Zahner:

1. Protect buildings with landscape art

If you've ever visited a bank in the suburbs, you've experienced passive security in their parking design. Banks utilize heavy curbs and chamfered one-way driveways to deter in-and-out getaways. This concept is taken further when you look at high profile assets such as embassies and government buildings which employ larger blockades and bollards to prevent vehicle-borne threats.

However, these types of barricades are often ugly and their purpose is self-evident. One way to reduce the visual impact of a bollard is by treating the object as an art form. 

An example of this kind of artistic protective barrier can be seen on a project completed by Zahner at the Federal Courthouse in Little Rock, Arkansas. The building's entrance features a work of public artwork, Echo Dynamics, by Mikyoung Kim. The artwork uses stainless steel and aluminum forms which disguise its secondary purpose: that of preventing a vehicle-based threat.

2. Secondary building annexes add security

Another example of this passive security in architecture is the use of secondary building structures. These are useful for retrofitting an existing building for security. This enables active security screenings to take place outside in the building annex, preventing would-be attackers from entering the primary building. This approach was used on the Federal Building in Jackson, Mississippi designed by Schwartz/Silver.

The McCoy Federal Building annex uses carefully placed landscape seating to protect the building from vehicle-borne threats.
The McCoy Federal Building annex uses carefully placed landscape seating to protect the building from vehicle-borne threats.

3. Artful perforation: disguise barriers as art

Custom perforated metal with patterns and imagery can provide a large number of invisible security details. When a wall or divider is made artistically, people are less likely to notice that the barrier is being used to prevent access and more likely to think that it serves a primary artistic function.

Zahner worked on Washington Elementary for the Sacramento School District which included a number of barrier screen walls, protecting young students from strange persons either entering or seeing into the interior spaces.

Perforations at the bottom of this fence are larger, while perforations at the top are smaller, making it harder for adults to see inside this elementary school in Sacramento.
Perforations at the bottom of this fence are larger, while perforations at the top are smaller, making it harder for adults to see inside this elementary school in Sacramento.
A clever perforated screen wall protects and inspires.
A clever perforated screen wall protects and inspires.

What is intriguing about the design, is that from the students perspective, they have a beautiful view of artistic "gear" imagery made by perforating images into metal. In addition, the perforated metal was designed so that, from up high, the perforations are smaller and more dense and thus harder for prying eyes to see into the school. From down low at the kids perspective, these perforations are larger and more open, so that small children can see into the spaces clearly. 

This is a great example of passive security: invisible to all, and an aesthetically pleasant experience for those it protects.

Perforated metal screen wall prevents access to under bleachers without drawing attention to its inherent security.
Perforated metal screen wall prevents access to under bleachers without drawing attention to its inherent security.
Detail of the Okie Blanchard Sports Complex perforated stainless steel.
Detail of the Okie Blanchard Sports Complex perforated stainless steel.

Another example of how perforated metal can be used as passive security is the Okie Blanchard Sports Complex, which includes a series of sports motifs on a gate and fence system. This serves to prevent access to the space beneath the High School stadium's bleacher seating (pictured above). 

While a simple wall might have worked, its dull aesthetic would have drawn attention to its purpose of preventing access to the seating. By using perforated metal with custom patterns or designs, the designers were able to achieve transparency and safety for the stadium. 

The Future of Passive Security

There are many types of buildings which have requirements that can be met with passive security design. We hope to see these practices move beyond government buildings and into buildings for education, hospitality, sports, and performance. Applying creative thinking to these design challenges will result in something which is both pleasant in its appearance and functional in its safety and security. 

Passive security design has a bright future. It enables architects and builders to play a role in making our world safer without sacrificing good aesthetics, and more importantly, the feeling of safety. 

Learn more about working with Zahner

Sign up for the Zahner mailing list to learn more about what we offer architects, designers, and artists. To get started with a project which integrates passive security, contact a member of the Zahner sales team.

About A. Zahner Company

Since 1897, across four generations, the family-owned business of A. Zahner Company has produced highly crafted architectural metalwork for artists and architects around the globe. Throughout the company's history, employees at Zahner have developed advanced metal surfaces and systems for both functional and ornamental architectural forms.

Zahner’s mission is to surpass the expectations of clients by expanding the boundaries of high-quality metal and glass used in art and architecture. The company pushes the levels of technology while providing a worthwhile, challenging, and safe environment for employees and associates.