Doors are relatively cheap. Lives are not.
Most exit-related building codes focus on life-safety issues, such as escape from fire, and only require a minimum standard. But if your planned church needs only two auditorium exits to follow code, put in a third. Or a fourth. Such a decision could save lives in the event of an active shooter or armed intruder.
An enduring and evolving challenge is ensuring that a house of worship remains an inviting and welcoming place while still safeguarding churchgoer security.
It’s a lot more complicated than simply adding more doors and escape routes, of course. One key security item for consideration is the flow of congregant circulation within a church. Here are some key design tips to keep in mind whether planning a church expansion, renovation or new facility.
* Entrance and exits
Remember that internal and external pathways are not just a point of entrance or exit for your congregation. They are also entry points for someone intent on doing harm. The number of exits and entrances is a key factor in determining the best foot traffic flow. You not only want to make sure there are plenty of ways to get out of a church in an emergency, you want to limit the ways people can actually get into the church.
Churches are by nature in the personal relationship business. Regardless of circulation issues and exits and entrances, once a person enters a church, are they monitored? People have become so accustomed to surveillance cameras they likely will not be put off by their presence in a church. In fact, they may find their presence reassuring. Another recommendation is to use ushers or a dedicated security team to keep an eye on people who are strangers or are acting suspiciously.
Consider the various “envelopes” of security in your church design. The first envelope can be external. Highly visible traffic entrances, and carefully sited building entries with vestibules can limit undetected access. Other envelopes are internal within the church, such as the auditorium and lobbies. Additional envelopes can include children’s ministries and administrative offices. Keep pathways and circulation routes as straightforward as possible to keep parishioners flowing freely. Prioritize the security measures for each envelope as necessary to make sure that the levels of protection are appropriate to the occupants in each one.
* Beyond codes
Remember that local, state and national building codes are the minimum performance requirements that buildings are designed to achieve. Building codes exist to address primarily life-safety needs related to fire protection, building structural failure, and location of egress systems rather than security needs. As a result it is important for churches to establish their priorities for security and work closely with their designer to determine what security features are desired beginning in the early stages of design. Going above and beyond
can not only improve the chances of escape should an armed intruder appear, they can assist in an overall security plan. If the code calls for four exits, provide five. While there are many different spaces to protect in a church, the auditorium is usually ground zero for an attack. This is why it’s essential to provide exits separate from entrances.
* Double doors
Codes also dictate the required square footage per exit based on the number of occupants. Double exits usually exceed that requirement and are recommended because they will improve the overall flow of foot traffic as well as provide ample room to escape.
* Modern needs
Good foot traffic circulation is already an enhanced consideration given the new functions and designs of churches. Lobbies are larger and some churches even offer cafes and recreation rooms. But it is still key to limit the number of ways someone can enter a church, and keep flow lines straightforward and make sure there are ample exits throughout the building, not just in the auditorium or sanctuary. Avoid choke points in corridors, and ensure they are wide and equipped with emergency lighting.
* Refuge access
Many church auditoriums now include stages. One safety consideration is to ensure there are ways for congregants to access the stage and backstage areas such as prop rooms or green rooms for refuge. Backstage areas should have exits that lead directly outside. This should be the case with most emergency exits.
* Outdated design
Older churches tend to have more circuitous, even labyrinthine foot traffic flow from one part of the building to another. A design professional can provide counsel and advice on how to create better flow through renovations or better use of the existing structure. Church leaders might also consider additional security measures.
These general guidelines can both improve foot traffic flow through your church as well as provide enhanced security. Designing for circulation and adequate doors and exits can not only improve the overall congregation’s church experience, it can save lives.