Magazine

Making Safety a Priority in Parking Garages

Buck Simpers, AIA

Murder, rape, robbery and assault are a few of the prevalent occurrences in parking garages today. Many are enclosed, with multiple levels and sloping ramps. They have stairwells and elevators that are also inviting to crime. These attributes make parking garages difficult to monitor. According to a study conducted by Liability Consultants Inc. of "more than 1,000 premises lawsuits between 1992 and 2001 revealed that in almost one-third of all cases reviewed, the basis of the lawsuit was a murder, rape, robbery or assault that occurred in a parking lot or garage."
Every year, we encounter more buildings being built and less space for parking. Parking garages are a great solution to this problem. In order for a parking garage to be successful, it must provide a safe environment for its customers.
Need for Control
Three major concerns go hand-in-hand when planning a safe parking garage: the nature of the parking garage, its location, and the area's crime history. These considerations serve as a guide to evaluate the level of security and access control needed in the parking garage.
Defining the nature of the parking garage involves understanding its purpose. Who will be using it? Is it a public or private garage? Will it be used primarily during the day or in the evening, or both? When planning the 900-car garage for the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, DE, the decision was made to design a parking garage for employees and court officials working in the new 550,000-square-foot state courthouse, and to provide parking for public use, including employees of local businesses and members of the community. The garage was intended for use mainly during normal business hours.
Understanding the location of a parking garage and researching its crime rate will also assess the level of need for security and access control. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the city of Wilmington is 72,644. The crime rate in Wilmington is worse than the national average, with larceny and theft accounting for the majority of the crime committed.
Designing for Security
Once there is an understanding of the security needs, developing a design within budget by considering initial, maintenance and operational costs is the next step. In this phase, the design team works with the client to establish what types of passive and active security technology and controls should be factored into the design to satisfy the level of need.
A few examples of passive security design factors include incorporating open space into the design, allowing as much natural light as possible to pass through the garage; deciding on the number of ramps and levels needed and designing for them; lighting; and determining the appropriate number of stairwells, elevators and entrances/exits. Some active security design factors include installing cameras, proximity access card devices and emergency call boxes.
Systems and Controls
Although the trend is moving toward pay-on-foot, parking attendants are still a good source of security, because they have a view of the vehicles and drivers' faces as they enter and exit the garage. They may also have a view of ground-level pedestrian entrances and exits.
Closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras can monitor and record drivers' faces and license plate numbers as the vehicles enter and exit the garage. Depending on the budget, CCTVs are good to use in stairwells, poorly lighted areas of the parking garage and different levels within the garage.
Placing call boxes and intercom systems within the garage is beneficial in emergency situations. They provide an instant connection to help if there is a security problem or medical situation, or if the vehicle owner has something wrong with his or her car and needs assistance. A call box with a visual signal draws extra attention to the area to help discourage criminals.
Proximity card devices limit access to the parking garage and monitor all entrances and exits. Cards can be encoded to provide information about the individual entering and exiting the garage.
Passive Security Options
Deciding on the number of entrances/exits is an important control factor. The less there are, the easier they are to monitor and become a deterrent to potential crime. Making ground-level doors accessible only from the inside is also a control factor.
Using high-reflectivity paint on the interior of the building is another way to provide better security. It can open up the space and reflect natural and artificial light. Paint is also important for wayfinding. Assigning a different color to each level of the parking garage allows the vehicle owners to easily remember exactly where they parked their car.
Open or glass-enclosed stairwells and glass elevators are significant when planning a safe parking garage. Opening up these spaces and making them visible to others helps deter criminals from these areas that are normally dangerous due to their seclusion. In addition, maximizing parking area openness by minimizing interior walls, providing large openings in the facade, and using open structural components will enhance user perception and deter criminal activity.
Increased interior lighting is key in providing security. The standard types of lighting for parking garages include metal halide, high-pressure sodium and fluorescent. Choosing the best type depends on lifecycle costs and on the quantity and quality of lighting needed. Color rendition of the lighting is an important concern when coordinating with installation of color CCTV cameras. Uplighting has grown in popularity to increase the feeling of openness in parking garages, while illuminating the whole garage and eliminating glare and shadows.
Cost of Implementation
The cost of implementing security features is relatively low. In order for many parking garage projects to stay within budget, the design team and owner must work together to plan for additional features.
Costs for security include not only for the systems themselves, but also for custom or atypical building components such as glass elevators, open lightwells and open structural construction. Other security-conscious elements, such as glass-enclosed exit stairs, may require enhanced fire alarm or fire suppression systems. There are also additional costs for both equipment and building maintenance items such as periodically repainting interior walls and/or additional security technology installations.
However, these costs are offset by greater utilization because of enhanced user perception, reduction of loss due to theft or vandalism, lower insurance costs, and minimization of the possibility of lawsuits.
A Secret of Success
The New Castle County Courthouse garage holds up to 900 cars. The design is a six-level, double-threaded helix with two entrances and exits. Its design provides maximum efficiency and security on the narrow site. Some of the passive security features include two doors on the ground level for vehicle owners and four vehicular roll-up gates. The two pay-on-foot systems allow for faster service and reduced personnel needs. There are three elevators, a glass elevator lobby and two open stairwells to prevent a favorable environment for criminals. The garage uses metal halide light fixtures; this type of lighting has a long life and a high level of color rendition.
Active security features include two emergency call boxes located in the stairwell furthest from the office. There is one teller off the main office. The main office and teller station is encompassed in bullet-resistant glass. This gives the teller and security officers the ability to monitor one entrance/exit.
The courthouse judges have an isolated surface lot surrounded by a 10-foot brick and concrete wall for added security. The lot is gated and monitored by cameras, and it is controlled by proximity card access. Once inside the lot, the judges use their proximity cards to gain access to the building and private elevators, which take them to their chambers and courtrooms.
The design team successfully evaluated the security needs of the New Castle County parking garage. Taking into consideration its purpose, location and the area's crime history helped assess its level of need for security. Once the budget was set, the design team successfully incorporated the security needs into the design and also planned for additional security features.

Buck Simpers has more than 30 years of professional practice experience. He currently is with BSA+A of Wilmington, DE. He can be reached at (302) 658-9300.

Article Abstract from November, 2003




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