Preventing Terrorist Attacks Through Intentional Building Design

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

A terrorist attack cannot always be prevented, but there are many things that can be done in advance to minimize both the cost of lives and reconstruction. For years we have been studying increasingly sophisticated systems to defend or stop terrorist threats, from an intelligence standpoint with both military bases and cyber defense.

It is no coincidence that the attacks occur in public areas, hotels, restaurants and other iconic structures – that’s where people congregate. But what can be done from a building perspective to counter a terrorist attack? Once one is occurring, not much. But in the planning phase, plenty of preventative measures can be implemented. Including risk management in the early stages of building design allow the combined knowledge of both the architect and risk planner to create or evaluate projects in relation to potential terrorist threats.

While the architect can ensure the building is to code, the risk manager has an understanding of terrorist actions, defense solutions (both passive and active) and special force intervention procedures that can be discussed as suggestions to include in the initial schematic building design. To design a fully secure structure, all of these parameters should be taken into consideration and evaluated to identify potential risk exposures along with design options that create fewer vulnerabilities from the start.

A terrorist attack can be categorized into three large branches:

1. Intrusion (suicide attacks or hostage taking)

2. Breakthrough (vehicles strikes or explosives)

3. Chemical, biological or nuclear

Therefore, four fundamental points must be taken into account when planning a secure building:

1. Perimeter protection

2. Internal protection

3. Management of mass evacuation

4. Intervention of special forces

If the command post and control (PCC) is easily accessible and/or not sufficiently protected in the event of an attack, all control and control systems can be transformed into additional resources for terrorists. The CCP should never be located on the ground floor. Access must be separate and regulated. It must have an independent electrical supply, drinking water reserves, a trauma kit and auxiliary communications.

The simplest answer to ensure a fully secure building is creating a militaristic underground reinforced concrete bunker, but who wants to spend a holiday with their family in hiding? It may seem daunting to design with safety in mind, but it can be achieved without feeling imprisoned.

Currently, most large hotels and resorts often have perimeter vehicle check with nothing but a boom gate and a friendly, unarmed parking attendant standing between the car obtaining entry and a straight shot to the front of the building. This isn’t stopping a terrorist. In instances where tighter security measures were implemented, there may be Jersey barriers in the form of concrete cylindrical blocks placed along the entrance, preventing possible car attacks on the sidewalk; but it often detracts from a building’s appearance.

What if instead, those unsightly concrete blocks were replaced with large planters, raised gardens or other elements such as concrete statues; the same result could be achieved but with a completely different look, in addition to a much more secure environment. This is just one, small example of security-intentional planning that complements building design.

In reality, the progression of a project that follows strict security guidelines is much more complex. For example, the design of a hotel lobby should include the possibility of absorbing a bomb explosion, potential damage caused by the consequent displacement of air and methods to minimize by intentionally placed architectural structures that deflect the explosion by directing it in a precise path. This approach, not only limits the injury to people but also the possible loss of the entire complex.

At other times threats come from other directions such as parking lots, loading docks, supply areas, public access paths, electrical installations, ventilation systems, the water supply, transit areas and transportation arteries. Each structure must be evaluated according to the degree of critical impact it holds. The objective of secure design standards is to use a precise but flexible method to identify weaknesses such as the building’s significance or the complexity of its structure while determining possible vulnerabilities.

Through close cooperation between security experts and buildings planners, we can ensure the right level of safety in a world that is more dangerous than ever.

For information on how to connect your building’s development with our risk management team, please contact us at


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