New Minn. School Takes CPTED to Heart

Nov. 27, 2007
From window designs to camera placement, elementary school is a study in CPTED

The building, designed to house and secure more than 600 people, has 23 security cameras inside and out that record 24 hours a day.

The windows do not open, in part so no one can sneak in. They also are extra-large so the outside perimeter can be monitored, and they are scaled so even small children can easily look out. During business hours, all of the facility's doors except one are locked, forcing every visitor to enter through the office.

Welcome to Watertown-Mayer Elementary School, one of the newest - and most unusual - schools in Minnesota.

The Carver County school has all the latest educational accoutrements - state-of-the-art computers, multimedia learning centers and ergonomic classrooms. But it also sports enough security features to make some prisons proud.

That's because the school was built using Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) concepts, principles that have been around for decades but which recently are becoming more commonplace.

What makes the Watertown building unusual is that CPTED principles are being used not only in a small community - population 3,029 - but also at an elementary school.

"You have to nowadays," said Judy Hoskens of Cuningham Group Architects, the Minneapolis firm that designed the school.

Hoskens said one of the early planning meetings to talk about the school's design happened to occur on Sept. 24, 2003, the day two students were shot to death at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn.

"Everyone realized, you know what, no one's exempt," Hoskens said. "This could happen anywhere. This could happen to anyone."

A new old concept

While CPTED has been around since the early 1970s - since author Oscar Newman coined the phrase "defensible space" to explain why crime rates seemed to be higher in high-rise buildings - the widespread practice of using design as a crime prevention tool is relatively new.

CPTED concepts have been used in Canada and in such places as St. Paul, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Dayton, Ohio, and Sarasota, Fla., to fight crime.

Although school shootings have been more common at high schools and colleges, they have occurred at grade schools, such as the 2006 killings at an Amish school in Pennsylvania.

"We're responsible for children so [school security] is very important to us," said Principal Nick Guertin. "It's important that parents feel that their kids are well taken care of. We want to be able to control who comes into the building. We're the only school, as far as I know, that has a design that ensures that everyone passes through the office."

The $16 million school opened in September to rave reviews from students, parents, teachers and staff.

The school features the standard security cameras, low bushes outside so people can't hide, sight lines inside the building that keep students in plain view and a special entrance that funnels visitors through the school office.

"Sight lines and visibility have always been important," Hoskens said. "But I would say that each time we begin a new project, those issues come to the surface more and more because it has become such a critical issue for schools."

Eco-friendly, too

While it has institutional features, the school is also one of the most ecologically friendly schools in the state, according to the architects, who are trying to get it certified as a model of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The school has a state-of-the-art geothermal well for cooling and heating that will pay for itself in five years and lead to millions of dollars in savings over the lifetime of the building.

The air circulation system ensures that the air inside is purer than the air outside, Hoskens said. That is in part why windows don't open - so the building's clean air won't be let out.

The choice of building materials also was environmentally motivated: Most are from local sources, such as stones used in the facade, and tons of recycled materials were used.

The architecture is designed to reflect the river, prairie, farmlands, wetlands and woodlands that surround Watertown. Blue tile, for example, weaves through the cafeteria and administration in imitation of the Crow River.

The result is a warm, bright building with numerous splashes of color on two floors. The grades are also separated into pods, allowing students of the same grade to interact while reducing noise in the building.

"We've had kids say it is so fun to be here, it's so bright," said Nancy Schrupp, a paraprofessional at the school. "We were just happy to have any new space. But it's more than met our expectations."

Another innovative and security-conscious design can be found in the lockers used by students. They have no doors, which makes it easy to inspect them and reduce clutter. The bathrooms also have no doors. Instead, large walk-in entrances are used similar to those found at sports arenas.

"They're such common-sense measures," said Karsten Anderson, the superintendent of the Watertown-Mayer School District. "We would probably implement these measures with any new structure. We just happened to build the elementary school."

After several months of living in the new space, students and staff said they have found their new home is marvelous.

"It's colorful," said Adam Heilman, a third-grader. "I like the lunchroom because it has big windows and I can look out at cars and birds and stuff."

Everyone seems to enjoy the abundant sunlight that comes into the building, a byproduct of making sure the outside is visible from 90 percent of the interior space. In contrast, the prior elementary school was built in 1911 and had a dark interior.

"I really like this layout. I like the big windows," said Bonita Heilman, Adam's mother. "The security is much better than at the other building. We know someone can always see the kids. It takes a village even inside the school."