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The Role of Maintenance in Building Security

by Ted Prestogeorge / September 23, 2022

Proper maintenance is obviously important for the smooth operation of any building. But maintenance is also a key component of safety. As a certified practitioner in CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design), I’ve had the opportunity to study how the security of people and property can be enhanced in many ways. One of these ways is proper maintenance, which in CPTED is often associated with the Broken Window Theory.

The concept behind the Broken Window Theory is that one broken window left unrepaired can lead to vandalism and can be an invitation for further criminal activity. The broken window is more metaphorical than literal. But the idea is that a building or property in disrepair sends a visual message that the owners or users of the building are apathetic about the building upkeep, and may also be apathetic about security. This in turn give potential offenders more confidence that they will not get caught if they attempt to do damage.

Broken Window Theory: Is it Valid?

Opinions have been offered questioning the validity of the Broken Window Theory. But most of these are when the theory is applied on a macro level – that is, for its impact on neighborhoods as a whole. Some have been critical of police forces for allegedly using the Broken Window Theory to target poorer, urban neighborhoods. The belief is that this could lead to an increased number of criminal prosecutions in those communities.

Whether or not that is a fair criticism is fodder for another discussion. However, I fully believe in the validity of the Broken Window Theory when it is applied at the micro level. That is, that the maintenance of an individual building and property, or visible lack of maintenance, plays an important role in overall building security.

While repairing broken windows is one way to maintain a property, there are other ways to promote the appearance of a cared-for property, such as:

  • Repair dented or damaged exterior doors, and fix pried doors and frames
  • Remove graffiti and tagging immediately after it happens (although it’s a good idea to photograph it first as it may be a sign of gang activity in some areas)
  • Repair or replace cracks and holes in sidewalks and pavement
  • Freshen up exterior and interior finishes
  • Develop a regular cleaning schedule and cyclical maintenance schedule for items such as exterior power washing, interior and exterior painting, recaulking window frames, carpet replacement, replacement of stained, damaged, or missing ceiling tiles, etc.
  • Clear weeds and brush from planting beds
  • Remove trash and debris from the property

Maintenance and Territoriality

A building that looks orderly and well maintained promotes territoriality, which is another main principle of CPTED. Territoriality is the outward expression of ownership of a building. Territoriality and maintenance overlap in the respect that a maintained building and property gives an outward appearance that the owners will defend it against potential crime.

Territoriality is also an inward message to the legitimate building users. A sense of territoriality can encourage employees and even visitors to feel a sense of ownership in the facility, and to care more about protecting it and watching out for signs of trouble.

During my years of assessing the security of government and civic buildings, I have come across more than a few buildings whose maintenance had been neglected. The poorly maintained civic building and parking lot shown in the photo below displays little sense of ownership and does nothing to reinforce a feeling of territoriality. The parking lot and sidewalks have major cracks and the brush around the perimeter are overgrown. The parking lot signage is rusted and unreadable. There is no clear delineation of boundaries. The building façade is stained, and paint is peeling. The parking lot and sidewalks are dark at night and offer plenty of places for intruders to conceal themselves.

Frankly, the building looks abandoned. But it is very much an active building that employees and the public use every day.

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An individual looking to do harm may look at the disrepair of this facility, as well as the absence of territoriality and any visible sense of ownership, and feel that no one is trying to deter criminal activity from taking place in the building or on the building grounds.

Additional Elements of a Maintenance Schedule

A regular maintenance schedule that keeps a building looking clean, orderly, and cared for should also include the items listed below.

Access control. Maintain the security of physical items, such as fences, doors, and windows, along with the associated electronic security devices and systems that together are designed to control who can go where. Access control maintenance includes the following:

  • Ensure that security fences have no breaks in them
  • Remove and trim trees on the outside of security fences so that no tree is within ten feet of the fence and there are no climbable branches ten feet from the ground
  • Replace or repair faded, broken, missing, or defaced signage. Clear and proper signage directs where the public is allowed to venture and where they are not. Poor or non-existent signage provides an excuse to a potential offender attempting to access a secure area.
  • Confirm that secure doors (interior and exterior) properly close and latch automatically. Include door closers on the regular maintenance schedule, and repair and replace them as necessary. Test doors often by opening them halfway and waiting to see if they close and latch completely.

Surveillance. Maintain visual sightlines and security devices to be able to detect potential intruders, and make it clear that they can be detected. Surveillance can be improved through the following maintenance measures:

  • Secure any camera or alarm wires that may have become exposed to prevent an individual from pulling them out
  • Ensure that security cameras are in working order; have a maintenance contract to repair or replace broken or outdated cameras
  • Trim trees and other vegetation regularly to prevent them from blocking the view of security cameras
  • Test the intrusion alarm system regularly to verify working order
  • Replace burned out or broken site lighting to ensure that intruders can be seen

Landscaping. Some of the security benefits of (and recommendations for) landscape maintenance have already been mentioned. However, landscape maintenance should also include the following:

  • Trim shrubs that are near the building and sidewalks; shrubs should be three feet from a building, and at sidewalks and windows should be no more than three feet high to prevent areas of concealment for intruders
  • Replace existing shrubs near windows and along the outside of the fence perimeter with spiny, spiky plants (such as barberry or blackthorn) to create a defensive barrier that discourages potential intruders from those areas
  • Trim or remove tall shrubs or other items that may block the views onto the property from patrolling police cars on the street
  • Prune low branches from trees to provide clear views of the property from inside the building

Image. The concept of image as it pertains to maintenance and security is all about creating a positive atmosphere to help instill a sense of pride and ownership among users. Ideas to promote a positive image include:

  •  Display artwork to create a pleasant perception for building users and to give the building a personal touch
  • Provide and maintain amenities to invite community involvement; a local community engaged in the legitimate use of a property will increase the number of eyes watching over the property

Employees and Visitors Returning to Normalcy Demand Security

As employees return to the workplace, it’s more important now than ever to ensure that the buildings and surrounding grounds are safe and secure. Employees who felt a sense of security in their home offices over the past two years are looking for similar security at their workplace. This sense of security is important for both retaining employees and attracting new talent.

Don’t look at a broken window and think it’s “just a broken window” and a low priority on the maintenance list. See the broken window and all maintenance items for the critical role they play in keeping your building occupants safe and secure. The cost to repair that window is well worth it.

Tags: Workplace Security

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Ted Prestogeorge

Ted Prestogeorge

Ted Prestogeorge is a senior architect with Fentress Incorporated, where he has worked since 2006. His primary interests include the history of architecture, Art Deco design, and watercolor painting.