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Heads above water in the crime tidal wave

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As the crime rate soars architectural practices have found themselves in the firing line. Steven Palmer asks how firms in 'up and coming areas' can avoid becoming victims

A crime wave has hit architectural practices in north London over the past month, with Curl La Tourell Architects the victim of armed raiders and Ushida Findlay burgled after its RIBA Modern Country House Competition win (AJ 21.2.02).

However, this is just part of a wider trend.

A recent report revealed that a handgun can be bought in London for only £200 and the Forum of Private Business states that 45 per cent of businesses are affected by crime in a 12-month period.

Dave King, Camden crime prevention officer, said: 'Architectural practices can find themselves on the front line because they use state-of-the-art technology and smaller practices are often in cheaper 'up and coming areas' where crime is often higher.'

Curl La Tourell Architects director Helen Taylor told the AJ: 'We're still in shock.We have stopped all late working for now - nobody wants to be in the office after dark.'

The attack happened at 9.30pm when a female architect was leaving the practice offices. She was bundled back into the office by two armed youths who then ransacked the office.

'The building is very secure, ' said Taylor. 'But alarms would not have stopped this attack - it happened at a vulnerable point.'

She added that staff are now told that if they do work late, they should have a taxi meet them at the office. 'We're also considering putting a camera outside to monitor the entrance, ' she said. Local residents were so shaken by the attack that they called a meeting this week to discuss security and design improvements for the area.

Squire and Partners moved into the King's Cross area of London in December (see page 38). One concern was security due to the area's reputation for crime. Director Mark Way said: 'We made a choice early on that we would opt for a security guard on the premises. Before we moved we also liaised extensively with the local crime prevention officer.'

The practice made a decision to avoid the 'steel shutter' look of other local firms. The offices are glass-fronted to showcase the practice's ideas on transparency in design, but this also allows views of the desks full of computers from the street.

'After we moved in, there were a few unsavoury types that seemed interested in the office, ' said Way.

However, behind the glass there is a drop into the lower level of the offices. 'We do have a bit of a moat, ' said Way. 'If someone thought about ramraiding us I think that might put them off.'

Many small practices cannot afford the expense of a 24-hour security guard or to design their own offices. King said there are many simple methods of protection.

He insisted that the best defence is to clearly and permanently mark all valuable equipment with a company's name, postcode and street number. 'A marked piece of equipment tells a fence or bargain hunter that this kit is nicked - if a villain can't sell it, they won't nick it, ' added King.

There are more sophisticated defences.

These range from standard alarms and bars on windows through to silent alarms linked directly to the local police station and CCTV.

There is even a 'smoke cloak' alarm, which floods an office with fumes from a vegetablebased compound that leaves no residue. 'The intruder thinks the place is on fire, so they get out as soon as possible, ' said King.

Clerkenwell crime prevention officer Adam Lyndsey added that another important defence is to lock computer equipment to desks. 'The combination of locking down, an alarm and securing all entrances to the building is vital and effective, ' he said.

Selectamark is one of the permanent marking systems recommended by police and insurers.

Director of Selectamark Jim Brown said: 'It costs about £1 per item marked overall. That includes many visibility extras, like labels for the front of the premises to make it clear to potential thieves that it's not worth entering. A lot of this is about prevention through high-visibility security.'

Elspeth Clements, the RIBA vicepresident for small practices, added that it was also imperative that practices ensure they have information safely backed up in more than one location and adequate insurance.

Brown said that companies that lost customer data in a break-in were normally out of business within two years. He added: 'All security is good value in the long run.'

A list of security products recommended by the police and insurers is available at www. securedbydesign. com and from the local crime prevention officer.

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