Islamic design
menu for this section of the site
menu for notes relating to this section on Islamic design

The concept of security

A safety glass window shattered by a missile

There is a distinction to be made between security and privacy: they are not synonymous. The concepts and the means for achieving them are often confused, particularly in Islamic societies where the privacy of the family is considered to be paramount, but where security is seen to be the main way of bringing this about. Privacy for the family moving in and around their home is still required and there are a variety of ways of organising this. But while society is changing in its attitudes to privacy, the needs for security are probably increased as other pressures become apparent with these changes.

In this part of these notes, security is taken to have the meaning of the planning and provision of devices and systems to protect a building and, by extension, those within it. The notes are added here in order to give some background to the thinking behind decisions on some upmarket housing and other development in Qatar. It is based on experience of a number of schemes but has been generalised and simplified in order to concentrate on principles that may be of use on a variety of projects. In general the notes will refer to houses, but the same principles are valid for different and larger uses.

The notes on this page complement those on the more social aspects of security made on the approach and other related pages which also include issues relating to privacy. Here it is intended to deal with the more physical aspects of security.

The first point to make is that anybody working on buildings which require security consideration should take specialist advice. This will become an increasingly likely requirement, particularly for public developments where designers may be held responsible for omissions which might be argued to facilitate a breach in security.

The second point to make is that it is easy to get carried away worrying about the possibilities of attack. A degree of common sense should be used; but it is also worth reminding designers that there may be a certain amount of what appears to be fatalism in the views of their clients which should be borne in mind when considering requirements.

While much of these notes refer to the more specific aspects of security, Schneier considers that there are four issues to bear in mind whenever security issues are being considered. Security

  • is a trade-off where we must give something up in order to obtain improved security,
  • is subjective in that we will all have different views of what me might give up in order to feel more secure,
  • should be considered as a system that is more complex than any of its elements of which we might be aware, and
  • technological advances can affect the balance of security, making attacks and defences easier or more difficult.

You can see that security is not a simple issue to deal with; common sense and continual vigilance must be used.

go to top of page

First considerations

An aerial view of typical new housing – Salata jadida, 1975

The traditional layouts of Arabic urban developments helped those living within them maintain a sense of security. Much of this arrangement would have come about naturally through the slow physical development of the buildings for close members of the family that created these neighbourhoods, and the framework of sikkak that formed the public and semi-public linkages. But the advent of the more open urban layouts caused by the donation of large plots of land to nationals, the breakdown of physically close familial relationships and the increased number of expatriates have reinforced underlying tensions.

These layouts were characterised by an irregular pattern of sikkak linking irregularly sized and shaped residential plots. This created ambiguity and privacy with the concomitant difficulty for strangers to read the urban layout and residents being more likely to be aware of intruders into their areas. While, today, this is likely to be a deterrent to those intent upon robbery – there being both a difficulty both in determining access to houses as well as escape routes – modern policing tends to avoid irregularly organised urban layouts, preferring to patrol along more easily accessible routes.

Before discussing the more practical elements of security, consideration should be given to determining the threats to a property. At its simplest, these will relate to understanding what might attract a person to try to enter a site which, in turn, suggests consideration of the types of people who might try to effect an entry. But, in carrying out this exercise it should be borne in mind that some may wish to enter solely on the basis of rumour, speculation or even chance. At the same time it is necessary to bear in mind that while some intruders may spend a considerable effort on considering how and when to attack, others may not.

Following this exercise it will be necessary to consider the points or areas which are most vulnerable to the types of person likely to attempt entry. An element of this consideration must be to determine what means of approach or access are most likely, or at least practicable, and what accessories may assist a potential intruder – either brought with them or available on or near the site.

Just as important is to consider how an intruder will escape, as this is likely to be one of their main considerations. In modern layouts this suggests that certain building locations are more at risk than others; for instance those on street corners, and those close to accesses to and from a main distributor, these allowing a choice for the direction of escape.

There is considerable discussion about what makes a building attractive or vulnerable. At its crudest there may be three reasons for an intruder to attempt entry into a building or property:

  • to steal material within the property,
  • to attack a person or people within it, or to
  • damage material located there, or the building or property itself.

Much of the rest of this page deals with physically keeping people out of a building. This part of the note looks at another way of considering the problem. Essentially there are those who believe that hardening a building suggests that there is something in it that is worth stealing. In this sense it invites attack. Those who are willing to take the risk might do so in order to obtain the valuables suggested to be inside.

An alternative strategy is to make the property appear impoverished and not worth the risk of attacking. This, obviously, is likely to work better against a speculative attack, but not one where the owner is known to the potential attacker and the property is considered to be worth robbing.

If a strategy of deterring attackers without providing security is followed, then the only decisions to make relate to the visual clues that suggest the building might be alarmed or defended. Most professional security companies install their alarm bell at the front of the property and fake boxes are sold to replicate them. The rear or sides of properties should also be provided with signs that there may be a security system in operation. Commercial systems are now sold which create laser sweeps of internal rooms which can be seen from outside, the lasers suggesting a motion-detecting security system protects the property. Similarly, flashing blue lights can suggest that a security system is in operation. These are similar to the small lights seen in cars signalling that they have an alarm system which has been set.

But professionals tend to understand the risks that alarms suggest, and the best defences tend to be associated with properties that are continually occupied, with lighting and noises that illustrate this to those outside.

go to top of page

Principles of secure design

Notional illustration of the lack of security in a secure system

This first diagram illustrates the simple principle behind building security – that optimal security is provided by conceiving the security system as a series of nested rings of secure elements which create a single, coherent system. In theory the rings should be considered as spheres, but let’s not complicate matters… These rings can represent a number of different devices and systems. The most common are:

  • physical,
  • electronic, and
  • human or,
  • a combination of any of the three.

The key points to remember with regard to the coherence of a secure system are that

  • each ring must be conceptually and actually complete,
  • the rings should be concentric and, generally, not overlap and that,
  • where the ring is broken for access of any sort, there must be an absolutely reliable method of monitoring its state, and acting upon that information in a timely manner.
Conceptual diagram of a secure entrance system Conceptual diagram of a vestibule securing entrance to a house

One of the systems for securing an entrance physically, is that used by some banks. In principle it is little different from a revolving door except that it can be locked down easily to prevent entrance or egress. There are also versions of it which contain the person moving through it so that the exit and entrance sides are never open at the same time. It is illustrated here by a device which rotates, always maintaining the integrity of the overall line of security. This may not appear to be relevant to residential housing but the principle can be used at different scales. In many houses, for instance, there is the possibility of using an entrance vestibule capable of providing the same secure principle but appearing to be a normal designed space of the house. In fact, this device is a logical entrance to a residence, acting not only as a visual introduction to the interior spaces while at the same time providing additional environmental control together with security.

While the comment above relates to the more traditional way of securing buildings – entrance doors – the principles of security also apply to windows and, a point often not considered, walls, roofs and floors. While it is common to design doors and windows to be hardened against attack, adjacent flimsy wall construction can be broken through sometimes more easily than a door. In addition there are tools that will break through most barriers, whether employed by attackers or security authorities.

In particular, bear in mind that the more coherent you believe the system to be, the more you have to be aware that you should rely on nothing. Equipment fails, people relax and the longer nothing breaches a security system, the less inclined people are to worry about future breaches of security.

Remember, systems need to be tested at all times on both a regular and irregular basis. This should be an element of any system securing a commercial or government building and might be considered for houses.

go to top of page

Our perception of security

Conceptual diagram of a building on its plot set within the public domain

Most owners consider security as relating just to their building, as is notionally illustrated by this diagram. Commonly buildings have security systems fixed to monitor their openings and with movement sensors for the interior with, perhaps, a monitoring device at the entrance to the property. In the West this, together with a prominent face-fixed alarm, tends to satisfy those wishing to safeguard their property together with its contents. This tends to be one of the chief requirements of insurance companies providing some degree of assurance against break-ins. Yet some will argue that the presence of an external alarm suggests that the property contains valuables, making it a more desirable target, and that a scruffier, apparently un-alarmed property is more secure.

Evidence also shows that a well-lit property is less likely to be attacked, and that good quality locks represent money well spent. Having said that, it is also of note that many burglaries and house break-ins are opportunist in nature and do not reflect the provision – or the extent of the provision – of security to the property. Evidence also suggests that it is the fear of apprehension that inhibits burglary and housebreaking. Householders need to consider the likelihood of theft being opportunist or specifically aimed at the theft of valuable. I have mentioned elsewhere that Qatar is a relatively safe country in which to live. Theft is not the problem it is elsewhere, a fact that has much to do with a combination of the character of the society, policing and secure frontiers.

These comments relate mainly to attacks on buildings for the purpose of stealing goods from them, whether opportunistic or targetted. A second area of concern will be addressed later – attacks on buildings with a view to harming those within them.

go to top of page

Vulnerability of buildings

Conceptual diagram of the relationships of lines of security and their integrity

This diagram is a notional illustration of the effective state of most buildings with regard to security. Few buildings are completely secure no matter how hard the designer tries. Although I suggest this to be a designer issue – and in this I am including specialist security design – to some extent this is a reflection on how far intruders are prepared to go in order to gain access. This, in turn, depends on their commitment, expertise, the time available for planning and execution, the perceived odds of their success, and a number of other variables such as lighting, overlooking, apprehension, the opportunities for disposal of stolen goods and so on.

Of course, it is also a reflection of the extent to which the owner maintains the security system and, in this, most owners rely on the integrity of a relatively small number of mechanical and electronic devices. Many Qataris also have servants who are either hired as guards or who are supposed to carry out this duty along with other duties in and around the property.

At its simplest, buildings are most vulnerable at their openings, usually doors and windows. We are advised that good quality mortice locks, dead-bolts, hinge bolts and the like set in a solid door and substantial door frame are sufficient to safeguard a door. The ability to see who is at the door with the aid of spy holes or, increasingly commonly, videophones or closed circuit television systems, improves the effectiveness of the door as a security device, and chains or opening restrictors give some comfort to owners though are not as strong as many imagine. In the West, letterboxes represent a weak point in the door though, in Qatar, mail is collected and a letterbox is unnecessary. I should also mention that doors are also the main route for exit by intruders, and a dead-lock can help thwart this. However, the truth is that doors are easier to break through than most people realise, but I don’t intend to deal with that here.

Windows are a very different proposition. Being made of glass they are inherently unsafe as security devices. However, when broken they make quite a noise and, on being broken, are immediately recognisable as such, both characteristics that give some form of alarm, albeit on or after the event. Specialist glasses can perform better, making it more difficult to break them, but their frames are still at risk and can be broken or disassembled. It is important to recognise that the glass and frame have to be seen as a single, integrated unit in their assembly and installation, and that the connection with the structure must be sound.

With both doors and windows, the main security design focus is on slowing down intruders as long as possible as, given enough time most assemblies can be broken through. In fact, this might also be taken for the focus of security design for the whole of the building.

go to top of page

Theoretical secure system

Conceptual diagram of concentric devices and systems used to protect a building

What designers are attempting to achieve with their secure designs is illustrated in this diagram, a coherent system or series of systems around the private parts of their home, and with controlled access through those systems which are as transparent in use as possible to the owner, and secure against intruder access. Unfortunately, the secure design of such buildings is usually left to the end of the project when specialist advice is commonly sought. Yet, with some understanding of the principles, security can be greatly enhanced in the initial design stages and the building ‘hardened’ without recourse to later, complete electronic installations.

go to top of page

Qatari security concerns

There is, in the Qatari psyche, a deeply rooted concern for security. Probably originating in the socio-political history of the peninsula with instability induced by the mobility of badu families, piracy and competing colonial powers, it seems to continue into the present, this traditional concern compounded by worries about the numbers of expatriates in the country, their own rapidly changing society and the political problems within the region. Given these pressures, it’s remarkable how sanguine most Qataris appear to be with regard to security. The concern is always there but is buttressed by the manner in which Qatari society is bonded, particularly when living together in distinct neighbourhoods with their particular characteristic for observing those who do not live within or have business in the area. Even when this is not the case, the majlis system acts as a positive bond based on the possession and distribution of information.

In addition to this there are a considerable number of policing agencies in Qatar, the knowledge of which also helps maintain a feeling of stability in the local population. In fact, Qatar feels a very safe country in which to live and work. There is relatively little crime and that which there is tends to be minor in character and carried out by expatriates. Nevertheless, Qataris are concerned about the security of their properties, and there is certainly enough disposable income spent on jewellery and consumer items to tempt thieves. But, more important than this, there remains an underlying concern to protect the family.

go to top of page

Requirements for Qatari building users

Before moving on to the requirements for buildings, it might be useful to mention some of the aspects of security that relate to the way in which a Qatari owner might use his building.

In broad terms, residential buildings in Qatar are larger than those in Europe, more people use them, and there is considerable movement within and about them both from the extended family as well as servants and, in restricted areas, guests.

In addition to this there are likely to be significant amounts of consumer durables as well as jewellery and expensive clothing in the houses.

Elsewhere I have mentioned the British Police initiative which aims to provide designers with advice on hardening their projects against criminal attack. It is worth looking at from the point of view of the advice relating to buildings though there has been criticism of its policies relating to layout. I have written a little about this conflict here and elsewhere, the key thing to remember being that there are significant differences between Western and Gulf societies.

Because of the climate there is more use of doors and windows than a Western designer might anticipate, making the reliance upon both mechanical and electronic security devices problematic.

In order to increase the general security of a neighbourhood,the following objectives should be attained in addition to those described in a note, yet to be written, on conceptual housing.

A number of objectives must be met by the house and its site if the resident is to be able to enjoy his house with a feeling of security. The following points are recommended for consideration:

  • provide each house with an obvious, identifiable site;
  • where there are semi-public or public spaces adjacent to houses, ensure that the houses have a direct design relationship with them;
  • site buildings so that design openings in walls permit observance of semi-public and public spaces;
  • ensure that it is possible to observe the private spaces associated with each house from the living quarters of the house;
  • arrange openings in walls to overlook potential or actual access points to neighbouring properties;
  • where the boundary wall to a property has openings in it, ensure that these openings are adequately protected by laminated glass, bars, locks or other suitable target hardening mechanisms;
  • at access points to the property consider, in addition to adequate locks and other hardware, the installation of intercoms and detector hardware;
  • ensure that there is improved resistance at all points of entry to the house by considering the provision of adequate, strengthened doors and frames, laminated glass, and ensuring that patio doors are designed to resist removal;
  • detail all other openings to the house and property – such as those for air-conditioners to resist passage, and provide detector hardware for them;
  • ensure that walls resist climbing by avoiding hand and footholds;
  • install external security lighting to all sides of the property, though avoiding nuisance to neighbours;
  • provide a central security system for each property with external sound and light alarms;
  • install in each property a smoke detector system for each floor and rooms of particular concern or risk;
  • install emergency alarm points at suitable positions within the property; and
  • where practicable, discuss and integrate systems with neighbours to avoid duplication and nuisance, and assuring continuity and integrity of systems for both properties.

There are one or two things to bear in mind when considering a list of this sort, and that is that every site is likely to be different in one way or another, and the range of solutions for improving safety will differ. There is also, for instance, a theory that in making a site appear to be safeguarded, it will attract criminal attention. This may be an argument that has weight in the West, but circumstances in Qatar are very different and would not necessarily support this theory.

go to top of page


Good visibility of the building – particularly its external wall – is the first requirement for security. Not only should the building and its possible entrances be readily seen from outside, but this should be so day and night. In the case of housing for Qataris, there is an obvious problem with windows being seen from outside where a wall stands between viewers and windows due to the requirement for privacy. In this case it is fair to ask that the external entrances to the site – mainly doors, but it could include windows to, for instance, a majlis – be readily seen and lit. This accords very much with the natural requirements of a Qatari who would hope to ensure his building, particularly its entrance and majlis, are readily seen.

Those external walls which are not readily viewable should also be well lit, for instance in sikkak. The sikkak themselves should be lit but it is also sensible to ensure that the inside face of external walls should be illuminated so that any intruder may be seen against it from inside the building.

go to top of page


There are a number of different aspects to consider when dealing with artificial lighting in relation to security. It may be that security lighting needs to be considered as supplemental to task or mood lighting, so it is sensible to consider all aspects of artificial lighting at the same time. Of course, mood or task lighting may provide security. In effect this means that task and mood lighting need study at the same time that security – in its wider sense – is investigated.

For security to be effective, the most obvious considerations are that artificial lighting should be:

  • sufficient for, and suited to its task,
  • considered in relation to daylighting,
  • capable of use day or night,
  • be tamper proof and vandal resistant,
  • simply operated,
  • easily maintained,
  • located discretely,
  • reliable, and
  • should not pollute,

the latter by which I mean there should not be spillage of light that would create a nuisance for neighbouring ownership or adjacent uses or activities.

Elsewhere I have discussed the colour of lighting, but in that case it was in relation to display and mood related to buildings, suggesting that lighting systems needed to consider the

  • positioning of lights,
  • their colour,
  • strength, and
  • modulation.

What I didn’t mention was that there is a psychological effect in the colour of light that can have an effect on those moving in around a lit space. There are two points to consider: the first has to do with colour temperature. At its crudest, warm lighting tends to relax and slow down both pedestrians and drivers, while cold lighting makes them move faster. As a corollary to this it has been discovered that good, white lighting tends to safeguard areas better than coloured lighting.

However, the main point to make is that areas and their lighting should be designed so that there are no places where individuals can lurk or hide themselves. Pedestrians in public areas should consequently feel safe. Elsewhere I have stated that Qatar is safer than many countries, yet there is always the concern that there may be danger, but this is perceived not just as it might be in the West – where danger is considered to be from attack – but from the point of women being able to move around without being talked to or accosted. In traditional architecture this is effected by the whole of an area understanding the normal balance and pattern of movement, with their being able to note anything out of the ordinary. In newly created areas and in non-Qatari areas, this is more problematic and likely to follow Western patterns.

It follows from the above that lighting peripheral to a site might best be white and arranged to ensure that there are no hidden or unlit areas that might provide hiding places. This, of course, applies to public spaces and is not always easy to achieve, particularly when there is a significant amount of landscaping intended, or likely to be anticipated. This must be borne in mind by the lighting designer in order that a lighting system is not later compromised by shrubs and trees, nor by the insertion of hard elements associated either with landscaping, drinking facilities, play or utility requirements.

The provision of lighting for security within a property boundary can be more problematic, mainly because of the amount of landscaping and ancillary buildings there are, or will evolve, within the boundary walls. The principles in this case are slightly different, with mood or task lighting likely to dominate decision making, but with the need to ensure that as much of the periphery of the site is illuminated in order to be able to identify an intruder. Having said that, to a large extent this is unnecessary in Qatar, but is likely to give psychological comfort to some. The theory is that if you keep the public areas safe then there should be no need for individual properties to have additional security provided. But the very fact that Qataris still require solid peripheral walls suggests the need for visual security and it seems to be a feature of Qatari gardens that there is a significant amount of lighting installed.

Because of this it is important that light pollution is considered, and fittings and masking organised to prevent spillage into neighbouring gardens. This may not be as much of a problem with sikkak and similar public thoroughfares as it may well contribute to security, but it should not cause nuisance.

It is preferable that lighting should always be designed as a hidden source. There are few things more irritating than being able to see light sources or, indeed, light fittings. Generally this means that the lighting has to be designed at the beginning of the landscaping process and provision made for the fittings within the hard landscaping, facilitating both their installation and maintenance.

While consideration of landscaping lighting is paramount in private landscaped gardens, it is important that lighting is provided for security purposes, but in as discrete a manner as is practicable. Generally this might be effected by washing the walls, so enabling those within the house to see any intruder against the walls. But it is also important to ensure that there are no areas of the walls and gates that are not covered by adequate lighting – bearing in mind that there are other means of providing a degree of security electronically.

Task lighting will be provided for areas where games or sport is carried out within the periphery of a compound. In this case security should also take consideration of those lights being turned off.

By the same token, the areas where servants live and work within the periphery of the site must also be taken into account in the design of security lighting.

It is not generally understood by designers that there is a strong farming tradition in Qatar, and that many Qataris will keep animals within their site. Again, consideration should be given to these areas. Where they are not mentioned by clients, it is still likely that such an area will be incorporated at a later date.

Finally, storage is a major problem on Qatari residential sites and security lighting is sensibly provided to deter or prevent theft. Travel and camping equipment, water sports, tools and a wide variety of expensive items are generally found within a compound and, like the contents of the house, must be safeguarded.

go to top of page


The walls of the building itself are the next element for treatment. Doors and windows are the obvious recipients of an electronic alarm system and, to these should be added any openings where a wall-mounted air-conditioner is located. The difficulty with this is that wall-mounted air-conditioners vibrate heavily, so any system monitoring them needs to take account of this.

Horizontal and vertical hand-holds on an office building

Despite Police advice, evidence from the news and, hopefully, part of their training, very rarely do designers consider their buildings from the point of view of the ease with which they can be climbed. While this has benefited the anti-climb paint and other similar industries, both boundary and building walls should be designed to resist climbing, particularly at ground floor level. This argument has two components:

  • the design of the walls should be such that they do not incorporate features which constitute natural hand-holds, and
  • there should be no additional features such as fall pipes and cabling that would enable an intruder to climb into a first floor or higher opening.

Most buildings are constructed of concrete with regard to their frames and infill of concrete blocks, then finished with a cement render. This provides a relatively smooth finish, free of handholds. With increased financial resources there is a tendency for stone facings to be introduced or for a mock ashlar effect to be created, both of which might produce horizontal grooves which might be used as finger-holds. While this might not prevent a determined or planned assault, it should put off opportunist attempts to climb into a building.

With regard to services on the external face of buildings there is a strong financial argument to face-fixing them in order to save money. This should be resisted.

A heavily detailed pre-cast concrete wall – with the permission of LAW on Flickr

Of course it is not only the walls of buildings themselves that should resist intruders. The first line of defence has to be boundary walls. As written about elsewhere, Qatar has been using pre-fabricated concrete panels successfully as an element of the urban landscape, the first panelled walls being those for the New District of Doha Senior and Intermediate housing projects. Those initial panels were relatively smooth, the finish providing a degree of resistance to climbing. There is now a noticeable increase in the amount of decoration on pre-cast panels. While this is a commendable contribution to the urban scene, there is always the possibility that, as shown in this example, hand and footholds are created which, security authorities will tell you, can attract opportunists by presenting a readily scalable wall. This apparently applies even to walls which are not there to provide security, but are placed in order to mark legal boundaries, as this appears to be used.

A wall with handholds, a lorry parked illegally, both security risks

In the main, the notes on this page comment on the fixed elements of buildings and their immediate built environment. These should be relatively easy to harden from a security point of view. In this photograph, however, there are two aspects of security risk to look at. The first is the same issue as that noted above; a designer has produced a heavily articulated pre-cast concrete wall panel that has hand and footholds carefully placed to enable an intruder to gain easy access to the property behind. To make things worse, there is a poorly located sign that might well aid the process.

The second issue has to do with process, in this case how security is maintained. Further up the page I noted that security of buildings or areas should not rely on physical elements, but that electronic and human resources are likely to be needed to reinforce them. The fact that a sign stating that parked vehicles will be taken away is also a means of aiding illegal access, is as notable as the fact that there is a lorry illegally parked adjacent to a wall – a classic means of enabling access over a wall.

So here there are three issues. The wall designer should have understood that, in Qatar, small movements in the decorative plane are all that is required for patterns to stand out, and that sloped edges inhibit finger or foot purchase; whoever is responsible for placing the sign there should have understood the security aspect of its being so close to a scalable wall; and the compound’s security guards should also have perceived all three as a risk – though it’s unlikely they can be held responsible for the wall. In Qatar, security personnel are employed for many buildings and estates, but it appears that some guards have neither imagination nor an understanding of risk and their place in the grand scheme of security. I know that some feel their jobs may be in jeapordy if they take what might seem to them to be unnecessary decisions, but although Qatar is generally safe, there are considerable temptations for those who have little and it is not unknown for robberies or worse to take place within compounds, aided by design and behavioural eccentricities such as these.

There is, of course, a fourth issue. The lorry driver should have been aware that his vehicle might be seen to be a security risk and not just a notional parking problem and that, because of this, his vehicle would be at least impounded and its owner fined, an issue that should make any driver nervous of his tenancy on a work permit.

go to top of page


Careful consideration should be given to the quality and character of glass in the fenestration. Environmental concerns are likely to dictate double or triple glazing, and this may include glass structures which incorporate integral plastic membranes to reflect heat. In this case the glass system will be stronger than normal and more resistant to intentional breakage. Where there is no need for such a membrane for environmental reasons, it might still be a good idea to use one for its security implications.

Glass can come in a variety of types and, at least, it should – if accidentally or deliberately attacked – either not break, or break safely. By this it is meant that, in its broken form, it should not present a hazard. There are essentially three types of safety glass, one or another of which should be installed in any residential building:

  • toughened or tempered,
  • laminated, and
  • wired glass.

Toughened glass has been heat treated and, when broken, is reduced to small, safe pieces. It is, however, liable to sudden breaking. Laminated glass comprises two or more sheets of glass fused to plastic membranes which keep the glass more or less in place when broken. Wired glass contains a mesh of wires within it which hold broken glass together. It is often associated with use in situations where there is a fire requirement.

Most countries have specific regulations relating to the use of glass in specific locations. My point here is to suggest that glass should be specified with regard to security, not just fire and accidental breakage. It is also worth mentioning here that there are a range of plastic sheets that fufill some if not all of the requirements of fire, accidental damage and security, and might be considered.

go to top of page

Aggressive attack on a building

Some people are concerned to cater for deliberate attacks on them and their property. Designing in these circumstances is very much a specialist area in which advice should be sought prior to design work starting in order to gain an understanding of the conceptual problem as well as any detailed issues which would affect the design solutions. Many factors must be considered which would not normally be the province of a building designer. Having said that, a degree of common sense can usefully be applied.

Security authorities will tell you that there is very little you can do against a determined attack. This assumes that the attacker has had time to reconnoitre and plan the attack, bringing to it sufficient resources to assure its success both in terms of

  • achieving its primary objective in terms of the attack or intrusion, as well as
  • enabling a safe withdrawal, probably
  • avoiding injury or anything more serious,
  • avoiding identification and, more probably,
  • detention.

But the property owner should ensure optimal consideration and design interpretation for obvious, likely problems with the intent of

  • ensuring that the attack is recognised for what it is,
  • slowing down an attacker or intruder,
  • ensuring there is an element of surprise for the attacker or intruder,
  • making sure an alarm or alarms are activated, capable of bringing response by the appropriate authorities,
  • ensure the intruder or attacker is identified by the property owner and the relevant authorities for later detention and prosecution,
  • giving all inhabitants a chance to move to a place or places of safety, and
  • taking appropriate, pre-planned action.

I should have included at the head of this list, if it is at all possible, the capability of identifying and pre-empting an attack before it launches – though, to a large extent, this is the province of the normal security organisations and their intelligence capabilities.

A participant at a razeef talks with friends

The first area to look at is the character of the likely attack. There are sufficient weapons in Qatar for these to be the main area of concern of most individuals worried about attacks against the person. Essentially we are talking about small arms – relatively low velocity, hand held guns. Many people own them and it is common to see them at various celebrations as well as being a popular and historically natural adjunct to camping and life in the desert. It follows from this that a number of guns are carried in cars if not on people’s persons.

They are also seen as collectors’ items, and it is not uncommon to see photographs on the Internet illustrating a romantic view of firearms. Some people have large collections of firearms and, as mentioned earlier, there is a history of their ownership and use within the socio-cultural history of the area.

A man with a golden gun

Gunshots are not uncommon at a variety of celebrations, though nothing like as common as in some of the other Arab countries. Nonetheless there is the chance of spent bullets falling, though there is little that can be done to protect against this eventuality. However, there might be the possibility of bullets being directed at a building, in which case the building should be designed to resist them through its structural mass, orientation of open wall elements, detailed design specification and the like.

go to top of page

Wall construction

Much of these notes have related to windows as glass is an obvious focus for an attack, but it should not be forgotten that walls and doors must also be considered. In commercial properties it is not uncommon for attacks to be mounted with vehicles aimed at doors, shutters or windows, but walls have also been attacked using heavy equipment. The walls of Qatari houses are generally constructed of reinforced concrete frames with an infill of hollow concrete blocks rendered both sides. However, all houses are now constructed within a surrounding boundary wall, usually of reinforced concrete, which means that any vehicle-based attack would need to be mounted through a site entrance or through a pre-cast concrete boundary wall.

Spent shell cases

Properly cast concrete blockwork will resist mechanical attack or random small arms provided the bullets are not concentrated on a single spot, but it will not resist a focussed, sustained impact from a variety of implements nor from automatic weaponry nor, of course, anything heavier. However, it is more likely that doors and windows would be selected as areas for attack rather than walls.

Reinforced concrete, by the nature of its construction is thicker and denser than concrete blockwork and provides more protection from missile attack and, due to its reinforcement, better protection against mechanical attack. In-situ reinforced concrete is usually less dense than factory produced units, but is likely to be just as effective as it will generally be thicker.

You should be aware that both reinforced concrete frames and blockwork may not work as expected from a security point of view. There is the possibility that blockwork might be of substandard manufacture, and that concrete frames may incorporate both poorly batched concrete and placement as well as steelwork eccentricities due to either cost savings or poor workmanship – or both, of course. Concrete blockwork should be firmly tied back to concrete frames with substantial ties, but this is rare

go to top of page


Most residential external doors are constructed from solid timber, usually teak. Ironmongery is either steel or brass and locks tend to be mortice. I have also seen espagnolette bolts used which seem to be a useful addition as they resist some of the methods of attack that might be directed at a door fitted with a mortice lock.

But there is more to door design than this. From a planning point of view, single doors are safer than double doors against an aggressive attack even though there is a tradition in Qatar for double doors with an inset wicket door. Door frames need to be solid, substantial and well fixed at their junction with walls with doors solidly attached at, preferably, four hinge points. Frame fixing must be substantial to the masonry, preferably effected with bolts counter sunk into the wood and pelletted. Where the frame is wide, the bolts should be located nearer to the inside of the building than the outside in order to provide optimal strength with regard to horizontal external attack. Any space between the back of the frame and the structure must be filled at the points of fixing with solid timber grounds – particularly opposite the locks – to avoid the frame being spread to gain access.

Notional arrangement of a protected door frame

The frame and door assembly can be additionally protected by having it recessed with regard to the front of the building, as is shown in this simplified sketch to the side. The sketch omits details such as thermal insulation, damp proof courses and the frame’s fixing bolts. It is assumed that residential doors will open inwards which, although not as theoretically strong as an externally opening door against horizontal external attack, has the advantage of hiding the hinges from attack.

The location of the hinges can be important and it is often recommended that three of the four should be within the lower half of the door’s height, the fourth near the head. Little attention is usually paid to the hinge side of the door to which at least hinge bolts should be added with a depth similar to the depth of the lock bolts on the opening side of the door.

Theoretical ways of using two doors to strengthen an opening

There are alternative ways of strengthening a door opening while creating additional benefits. This principle has been used in many types of Western housing in the past, and might benefit some types of housing in Qatar – where privacy can be safeguarded. In these examples two doors have been used in close proximity, generally the outer door being translucent or having glass panels to enable light and views to be enjoyed from inside the building. One of the doorways has an additional external metal grille on the outside wall to permit both internal doors to be opened, allowing air to circulate while maintaining a degree of security to the doorway.

Theoretical ways of using two doors to strengthen an opening

The doorway illustrated to the left of the four above is shown again here. It is designed to be much more secure than a single door and consists of two doors with only a narrow space between them, and swung on different sides of the frame. If the internal door is closed it is impossible to open the outer door from the outside when the internal door is closed. This is so, not only for a normal attempt, but also for an attempted direct forced entry. Like all door solutions, secure integrity relies not just on the combination of doors, hinges and bolts, but also on the strength of the fixings to the walls, an issue that is often forgotten and which also relates to windows, an issue discussed elsewhere.

If it’s not mentioned elsewhere, it is worth bearing in mind that opening doors to the outside means that the hinges are on the outside, exposed, edge of the door and security provision must bear this in mind with the incorporation at least of robust hinges, screws and frames and their fixings as well as the addition of hinge bolts.

A simple representation of a door bar, side fixed A simple representation of a door bar, floor fixed

Finally, and unusually, the two crude sketches to side illustrate another way in which doors were traditionally strengthened. Both sketches illustrate principles, not design solutions. These devices were located on the inside of doors to fortify the door against horizontal attacks from outside. The strengthening can take the form of a cross-bar which either pivots or swings down from one side of the doorway and locates in recesses in the masonry wall on both sides, thus stabilising a door under horizontal attack. I have also seen, successfully used and illustrated in the lower sketch, a metal bar located on the opening edge of the door and held at its other end by a hole in the internal floor 45° from the bar’s junction with the door. This is a more awkward and ugly device to incorporate, but is effective. However, the device in the upper sketch protects both sides of the door whereas the lower device only the opening side of the door.

go to top of page

Door locks

Position of locks on external doors

As mentioned above, domestic door locks need to be considered at the same time as the design of the doors in which they are located. All doors to a residence should be protected by secure locks and should be considered as being equally at risk. Locks should sensibly be reinforced by the use of door bolts and hinge bolts. Generally locks need to be from reputable companies as will be required for insurance purposes. Five-levered mortise deadbolts are considered the minimum requirement and might be supplemented by rim locks for daily use, though this is not the practice in Qatari houses where instant access is liked. I mentioned espagnolette bolts earlier and multi-point locking is a sensible manner of securing a door around its perimeter.

It has to be borne in mind that there are likely to be many people using Qatari houses, a factor which results in the need to have continuous access through most of the doors. Even though this might be thought to apply to all doors but the main door – which is generally going to be used by the men of the household and their male guests – it is necessary, for hospitality reasons, that this door to be left on the latch throughout the day and will only be locked at night when guests have left. This will be so even if a guest stays the night in accommodation related to the majlis and its associated guest provisions.

Nowadays doors will often have two locks to provide more resistance to frontal attack. Often you will see these located with one at the normal height – 1.00m to 1.20m above ground level, and a second around 0.30m above ground level. Both these positions are at risk from ram systems and it is advisable to have the second lock positioned, not at the bottom of the door, but near the top. All lock bolts should be capable of being double thrown to improve their resistance.

These notes suggest that the locking of doors should be made with traditional locks and mechanical keys. Electronic locking is becoming more familiar and there is the possibility of using these systems, usually with keypad access rather than with card or fingerprint readers. The decision on which to use is likely to be made on the numbers using the house and the traditional feeling for security given by a substantial keyed lock system.

Internal doors in Qatari houses rarely have locks unless there is a perceived need for security as opposed to privacy. This is likely to relate to consideration for security to a study or office, the main bedroom suite, particularly if it contains a safe room or safe, and any storage which is likely to contain valuables.

go to top of page

Keys and keying systems

Designers must be aware of the technological advances made in locking systems, both in their locks and their associated keys. It seems not to be understood that many locks that are sold as being more or less impregnable, can be opened relatively easily, the information for this being readily available to those searching for it. Where flexible cards, picks or drilling used to be the common ways of circumventing the lack of a key, bumping is a technique that is actually easier to accomplish for certain common lock types. Designers need to keep themselves informed with respect to these techniques. This is particularly so when keys and suiting are being considered by their clients. Whereas a bunch of keys was thought to be a guarantee of security for an owner’s property, Qataris now prefer to carry as little as possible, particularly bulky metal keys. Electronic cards and other recognition systems are becoming more common, not only for the foregoing reasoning, but also because of an interest in technological solutions that is increasingly apparent in the society.

Where keying systems are used which have no need of incorporating with the lock, care needs to be taken to ensure that the

  • system selected is suited to all members of the household who will need to use it,
  • the keying operation can not be overlooked, and
  • the positioning of the system will work for all.

Generally speaking it is only the men of the household will hold keys together with some servants. But times change and easier technologies and increased movement outside the house suggest that more are likely to want or need keys. It is important that the issues relating to locks and keying is thoroughly talked through with clients, and that provision is made for the future incorporation of systems relating to them.

go to top of page


The suiting of door, window and other locks should be considered when designing residences. In this case it is likely the family will need to identify the hierarchy of security as well as those gates, doors and windows which will relate to each of the household who bear a responsibility. However, it may not be possible to suite all locks; for instance, garages, safes and security openings may require different types of lock and keying systems, though there is no reason why internal and external locks might not generally be suited. The locks to windows may be a different matter and might be considered separately.

go to top of page


A bullet hole in a window

The first of this pair of photographs, taken from inside a building in Qatar, shows the typical damage caused by the path of a bullet through an ordinary glass window. Note that the hole on the outer, entrance side of the window, is the size of the bullet, but that the spalling is created on the inside of the glass by the bullet slowing as it moves through the glass creating this typical cone-shaped hole.

The evidence of a bullet passing from inside to outside a window

In this photograph, a larger calibre bullet has been shot through the glass, this time from the inside – the far side of the glass – out, again making a similar cone-shaped hole in the glass, but this time also cracking the glass pane horizontally from side to side. I assume that the curtain was not drawn when the bullet passed through the glass as there appeared to be no damage to it.

Projectiles of this sort can readily pass through ordinary glass, and windows, by their very nature, tend to be relatively large and easy to hit targets. Although glass will slow a bullet slightly, it is unlikely to be sufficient to lessen or prevent injury to those hit by a missile passing through it. You should also note that these two examples are of single projectiles and do not reflect the damage which would be caused by an automatic firearm or, of course, anything more powerful.

Windows can be protected against missiles by three different methods used individually or in conjunction by:

  • designing windows so that they are screened by a solid device in line with any possible direction of attack,
  • installing bullet-proof glass; this is usually a sandwich of glass and plastic which slows down the bullet, dissipating its energy through the glass and plastic assembly, and
  • providing additional devices to slow down or hold the missile before or after it hits the glass.

The provision of solid screening is an obvious enough precaution and accords with the natural desire for privacy. Many windows in Qatar are protected by concrete, grp or grc mushrabiya screens which might provide a degree of protection but can not be as effective as a total, solid screen.

As explained further down the page, glass may be installed that has a heat reflecting layer which may assist its missile-piercing qualities but, if missiles are to be prevented from entering the building, then a glass must be selected specifically for this purpose. In order to be fit for purpose a precise assessment of the likely type of weapon and ammunition must be made, its distance from the window and its angle of incidence on the glass in order to make an accurate specification of the glass. This can be difficult as there may be a wide variety of weapons to consider which will have different velocities and mass with widely differing impact characteristics against the glass.

At the same time as the glass is specified, the frames must also be considered. There are three reasons for this:

  • firstly, the frame itself must be able to resist a missile,
  • the frame must be able to retain the glass when the latter is hit by a missile, and
  • the whole of the glass and frame assembly must stay more or less in place when the glass is hit. It is no use if the whole of the glass and frame assembly moves into the building due to its fixing being too weak.

Much of the above has to do with relatively small missiles being aimed at windows, but remember that weapons with a heavier impact on windows might be available to a determined attacker.

Mention has been made of devices that will slow down missiles before or after striking a window. Usually they are designed for the inside of windows and operate on the principle of a relatively opaque material held by belts which, when the material is struck, will permit some movement but are designed to bring the object to rest. They work on similar principles to car seat belts and are mainly intended to resist explosive attack.

go to top of page

Planning, footprints and security

Planning requirements with regard to the siting of buildings are well established in Qatar. The majority of residential buildings are relatively large compared with the site on which they are located and, as a consequence, their positioning with regard to the property line leaves little room for variation. Planning codes require set-backs from the property line and always assume that the buildings will be parallel with, usually, at least the front edge of the property. For most buildings this should not be a problem but, in certain cases there might be a design or security reason for having the building footprint located differently.

The most likely example of this might be a building which could be a target for bombing such as an embassy, diplomatic residence or security organisation. The reason for this is simple: where there is the possibility of a blast, those parts of the building that will receive it will be best located at an angle to the blast, deflecting the main force of the blast. This will apply in both plan and section.

So, the principles that would govern the positioning of a building with regard to its plot would include, but might not be limited to, consideration of the:

  • relationship of peripheral and approach roads, particularly with regard to unprotected parts of the building,
  • the ability for visual inspection and identification of approaching traffic and personnel,
  • the capability to exclude vehicles and pedestrians,
  • provision of off-site parking and its masking from the building, and the
  • opportunities to safeguard the building by its relative location and design devices – both as part of the building design as well as the surrounding landscaping.

go to top of page

Landscape design

The majority of designers engaged to work on domestic buildings tend to concentrate on the main building and leave the design of the site’s landscaping until a later stage. A landscape architect or horticulturist may be engaged to complete the work but it remains, unfortunately, relatively rare for the site’s coherent design to be considered from the outset. The larger the project, the more likely it is that the landscaping will considered relatively early in the design phase. But it is imperative that a common sense or, preferably, informed approach is taken in this area of design from the point of view of security right at the outset of the project.

I have written elsewhere that the space around a building is not to be considered as residual with the imperative that it is treated to ameliorate its condition: rather that it is to be designed at the same time as the adjacent internal spaces of the building, and integrated with them. This means that the security aspects are to be considered along with both the securing of the buildings as well as the more decorative aspects of landscaping. This applies both to the activities to be associated with those external spaces as well as the selection of hard and soft materials to be incorporated there.

The fact that there will be a peripheral wall to the site is usually taken to concentrate the designer’s efforts within the site, and to consider the boundary wall, along with its different gates, as the first line of security, and to consider the building envelope as secondary.

go to top of page


Yet the area between is seldom considered from security point of view. There are four aspects to think about:

  • lighting and illumination,
  • hard landscaping selection,
  • plant positioning and selection and, although it is not strictly a landscaping issue but one related to the periphery of buildings,
  • the keeping of animals.

Earlier I mentioned that the boundary walls of properties should be illuminated. In this I was thinking of sikkak. But this also applies to the inside of walls where illumination of the inside walls will provide a good view of an intruder while, at the same time, inhibit an intruder from dropping into the property. General illumination, focussed species lighting, task lighting and security lighting should be considered and integrated with a view to ensuring that all areas of the property are covered and visible either to residents, staff or security systems.

Hard landscaping materials should be considered, particularly from the point of view of vertical surfaces in terms of their colour and articulation. It makes no sense to provide handholds on walls. Decisions will need to be made on the degree of roughness and the conflicting concerns for reducing dust retention and discouraging climbing. Consideration should also be given to ensuring there are no easy routes out of the property through the placement of built-up hard landscaping materials.

Plant or species selection will depend on a number of factors, many of them to do with visual and environmental factors relating to the use of the external areas of the property. But it is also important to think of the material and its relationship with security. The chief considerations here are for the

  • selection and placement of material to prevent or restrict ingress and egress from the site, and
  • to not inhibit visual security.
Bougainvillea used both for display and security

It is important that material should not be planted which would, immediately or in time, aid a person climbing into or out of the property. The most obvious examples to consider are date palms which, if located too close to a boundary wall, would facilitate egress from a property, while bougainvillea with its density and thorns will discourage both ingress and egress over a wall.

In addition to this it is imperative not to create blind spots in the layout of the landscaping; there should be no areas hidden from view to those living in the property.

I also mentioned animals earlier. Many Qatari houses have animals in or around the property. Mostly these are animals used to provide food for the household though pets are also owned, particularly birds. Guard dogs are occasionally owned though there is a prohibition against handling dogs in the Muslim world though an exception is made for saluqis, which many Qataris who hunt, own. I have never seen geese in Qatar but they have a long tradition as guard animals and might be considered.

more to be written…

go to top of page

Principles of secure design – a safe room

Conceptual diagram of the rings of security including a safe room

Increasingly, property owners are requesting the provision of secured spaces within their houses and offices. In some countries it is now a relatively normal requirement where people feel that they or members of their family may be at risk from opportune invasion, kidnapping or targeted attack. As a consequence specialist companies are now providing advice and the means to secure a part of a property for a period of time.

The diagram above notionally illustrates an addition to many buildings where the owner feels vulnerable from personal attack, either as a concomitant risk from an intruder looking for valuables or from a specific personal assault: a safe room. This is a room in which people can lock themselves in with some degree of safety, usually for a relatively short period of time. It is not to be confused with a walk-in safe, though the latter are not uncommon.

In some parts of the world, safe rooms are often associated with protection from storms, tornados and the like but, more commonly nowadays, they are understood to be associated with provision against intruder attack.

Safety in these circumstances is very much a specialist area as there are various degrees of protection that might be given to a safe room. Professional advice should sensibly be obtained.

The first problem to resolve is that of making an accurate assessment of the real or perceived risk to the occupants. There are a number of considerations which should be investigated and defined in order that suitable planning and installations can be incorporated within the building. These should include but may not necessarily be limited to, the following – and in no particular order:

  • an assessment of the likely point and methods of attack,
  • the time at which an attack might be made,
  • the length of time that the occupants are likely to have to
    • gain access to it, and
    • will occupy it,
  • the degree to which the safe room is to be hidden,
  • the need to be able to see and interact with events outside the room, and
  • communications required from the room.

From this a number of design factors need to be defined. Again, these will include, but may not be limited to the:

  • location of the room in relation to the,
    • layout of the house,
    • access, and
    • external surfaces of the building,
  • function of the room as a standalone facility or part of the house, and
  • the degree to which the room might be disguised or masked.
  • materials from which the safe room will be constructed, their junction detailing and sealing,
    • walls,
    • doors,
      • actuators, and
      • emergency release,
    • floor, and
    • ceiling,
  • functions required within the safe room,
    • seating,
    • sleeping,
    • food storage and preparation,
    • sanitary,
    • monitoring,
      • basic system operations,
      • intruder identifications,
      • proximity and motion sensors,
      • audio sensors,
      • oxygen monitor,
      • smoke detector,
      • energy status,
      • lock-down,
    • defensive, and
    • communication,
      • cellular,
      • short-wave radio,
      • CB etc.
  • following from this decisions will need to be made on the provision of,
    • ventilation and air-conditioning,
      • bio-chemical filtration,
      • re-breathing capability,
    • lighting,
    • water,
    • drainage, and
    • power.
      • mains, and
      • battery.

It can be seen that there are a number of decisions to be made on the extent to which these utilities are separate from the main utilities and, by extension, the extent to which they should be hidden or masked.

It is very easy to over-design this aspect of a building. Many safe rooms are, and might look like normal rooms in a house. Cellars in basements are often used, as are bathrooms as the facilities there will be useful. But wardrobes, cupboards, pantries, store rooms and the like may also be used. The key item that tends to give them away are their doors. Some also have their floors raised or sealed to prevent flammable liquid attacks underneath the door or gas around them.

Finally, bear in mind that the diagram above and the points made may appear to be related to two-dimensional areas, but that security needs to be considered in the round with particular attention being paid to its three-dimensional aspects.

There is much more that might be written on this subject, but this is perhaps enough to cover the basics sufficiently to give an indication of what needs to be thought of in the initial stages. There are a number of issues that should be considered but which might not come to mind. In the main they can be identified from a careful examination based on the line items above. If in doubt, put yourself in the position of the attacker…

go to top of page


This subject does not really fall within the area of the notes on this page but will be dealt with elsewhere. However, there are some points to bear in mind, particularly in the initial planning stages:

  • some items, such as weapons, may require special safeguarding in accordance with common sense and legal requirements,
  • items need to be identified for their protection and value in consideration of their
    • size,
    • character, and
    • value,
  • and consideration has to be given to the difficulties associated with their possible
    • loss or
    • damage by at least theft or fire,
  • different members of the family may require different solutions to protect their valuables, and
  • consideration should be given to the degree to which a safe or safes might be hidden, as well as
  • the required ease of access.

Bear in mind that, given time and access, most safes can be identified, opened or removed and opened, and that digital information can be safeguarded in a number of ways.

more to be written…

Old Qatar 02   |    top   |    Protection

Islamic design
menu for this section of the site

Search the Islamic design study pages